Amid a resurgence in coronavirus cases across the United States, public health officials are asking everyday Americans to do their part. Their message?
A face mask is more than a piece of cloth. It’s a sign of respect.
“Wearing a mask, ladies and gentlemen, is respect,” Dr. Padmini Murthy, professor and global health director at New York Medical College, said during a United Nations panel.
The science is clear. Wearing a face mask is one of the best ways to prevent coronavirus transmission. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear face masks both to protect others and to protect themselves.
“We actually have some of the most powerful weapons you can ask to have – and the most powerful weapon that we have that I know of is wearing face coverings when you’re in public,” CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said Monday. “So we ask the American public to all fully embrace the use of face coverings when they’re in public.”
Now officials are appealing to the public’s sense of solidarity and respect.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, reiterated the importance of masks this month, saying: “It signifies one common good and that is care for the public health.”
While face masks are one of the most useful tools available to stop the spread of coronavirus, the rhetoric around wearing them has become heated. Health officials, scientists and some government leaders have implored people to wear masks to reduce transmission, but some have resisted the recommendation, with protests and outright refusals to don face coverings in public.
“This is not about politics,” said Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore’s former health commissioner, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. “This is about each of us showing that we care about one another, that we respect one another.”
Noting that behavior change takes time, Dr. Joshua Barocas, an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center, says wearing a mask can help reduce transmission, help form a good habit and serve as a sign of respect.
“I think beyond simply the viral transmission, wearing a mask can just be a symbol,” said Barocas. “It can show people that you are committed to the cause, that you’re committed to fighting Covid-19 as a community… committed to protecting other people’s lives and their children’s lives and their families’ lives… committed to having a strong economy open when we’re fully ready.”
Dr. Jessica Justman, an infectious diseases specialist and epidemiologist at Columbia University and attending physician at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, says that messaging plays an important role in the implementation of public health strategies, like this one. She says that it can make a difference when a leader dons a face mask as an example to others.
After months of refusing to be seen wearing a mask in public, President Trump wore a mask on Saturday during a visit to wounded service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. On Sunday, first lady Melania Trump posted a video of herself wearing a mask during a visit to The Mary Elizabeth House, an organization supporting single mothers and their families.
“I’ve never been against masks, but I do believe they have a time and a place,” President Trump said ahead of the visit to Walter REed.
Justman says it can also be helpful to have celebrities help disseminate important public health messages, because they are often regarded as opinion leaders in our society.
The actor Tom Hanks, one of the first well-known public figures to announce he had contracted coronavirus, recently said he has “no respect” for people who don’t wear face masks in public.
Shifting guidance on face masks
Public health officials now face the challenge of walking back some of the initial guidance on face masks, which has evolved over the course of the pandemic.
At first, health officials weren’t sure how easily the virus could be transmitted, how far particles carrying the virus could travel or how often asymptomatic infection occurred.
In March, when health workers were experiencing a shortage of personal protective equipment, including face masks, the CDC and World Health Organization advised people not to wear masks if they were not feeling ill, in order to save them for health workers and those who were sick.
Upon learning how easily the virus can be transmitted – research shows transmission through asymptomatic and presymptomatic individuals may account for about half the coronavirus cases in the US – the CDC changed its guidance in April, encouraging the public to wear cloth facial coverings.
In June, WHO advised governments to encourage their citizens to wear masks in areas with widespread transmission, when social distancing is difficult. Some politicians, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lobbied for a federal mask mandate, although White House officials say that is unlikely to happen.
US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said on Sunday that a mask mandate would be most effective at the state and local levels. Adams, who has referred to masks as an instrument of freedom, expressed concern about enforcement over mask mandates in an era when Black people are over-policed.
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“If we just try to mandate, it you have to have an enforcement mechanism, and we are in the midst of a moment when over-policing has caused many different individuals to be killed for very minor offenses, and that is an important consideration,” he said.
As cases have surged over the past few weeks, some states and counties have mandated face masks in public settings and high-risk areas.
Florida, which on Sunday reported the highest number of new cases in a single day of any state during the pandemic, does not currently have a statewide mask mandate.