Getting Americans masked up is a top priority for the Biden administration.
Biden, who calls wearing masks “a patriotic act,” signed an executive order Wednesday – his very first as President – to ask Americans to wear masks of their choice for the first 100 days of the new administration. The executive order also requires mask use on all federal property, though in this case, not just any old mask will do.
On Wednesday, after the inauguration, White House press secretary Jen Psaki showed off her bright white N95 mask in the press briefing room. “I wore it out, of course, here today and will continue to do that,” Psaki said after removing her medical-grade mask and before turning to questions.
N95 masks are considered the gold standard in personal protective equipment because they block 95% of large and small particles utilizing a unique electrostatic filter.
The filter works by trapping neutral particles like bacteria and viruses before they pass through the mask, protecting the wearer and those around them. It’s similar to how socks might get stuck to a blanket in the dryer. The N95 mask, which costs roughly $5, also fits securely to the face, eliminating most of the leakage that may occur with a loose-fitting cloth or paper mask.
Studies have shown that masks significantly decrease the chances of transmitting or contracting the coronavirus. But not all masks provide equal protection. Depending on the fabric and number of layers, homemade and simple cloth masks have a range of effectiveness that can be as low as 26%, which leaves the wearer vulnerable.
Some experts like Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School physician Dr. Abraar Karan have been advocating for public use of N95 masks from the start of the pandemic. In an interview with CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Karan outlined why N95s are critical at this stage of the pandemic.
“If for four weeks the country essentially wore these masks in those risky settings like that indoors, what kind of difference do you think it would make?” Gupta asked.
“This would stop the epidemic,” Karan responded.
The quality of protection a face mask can provide is crucial. A respiratory illness like the coronavirus is transmitted through aerosols, tiny particles that waft and hang in the air. Some virus-carrying particles are small enough to travel through or around lower-quality masks, making the wearer vulnerable to inhalation of viral particles.
“We know now that aerosols spread best when there is poor ventilation, crowding and close contact that’s prolonged,” Karan told Gupta in an interview. “So we were arguing that actually in those settings, cloth masks alone are not going to block aerosols.”
Karan is not the only expert who has been vocal in support of better quality masks for the general public. Former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb wrote in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that “encouraging Americans to wear higher-quality masks is a simple step that might make a difference.”
The biggest problem is lack of supply. This week marked a full year of the coronavirus, and the Biden administration has committed to invoking the Defense Production Act more often to boost manufacture of N95 masks and other critical supplies. Experts hope manufacturing will hit a speed to be able to sufficiently supply the population.
“An N95 that’s well-fitted clearly is the best that you can do,” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN Friday. “You could get production of that at a much higher rate now.”
Karan believes N95 masks could be an essential asset in reopening the economy as the vaccine rollout remains sluggish and quarantine fatigue soars.
“If we have better personal protection for people, they can more safely go back to work. They can more safely re-engage, especially if testing and tracing is not where we need it to be,” Karan said.
“This was going to be one way to get people back in and get the economy back up.”
Some European countries are already taking that step to prevent coronavirus spread within their borders. Earlier this week, Germany and France mandated that all citizens wear high filtration masks like the N95 in all public places.
After months of treating coronavirus patients, Karan says it’s time to invest in making sure masks people wear are even more effective. “Focus on getting better masks to as many people as possible, focus on the messaging around masks, be consistent with your messaging, make masks part of American culture to stop the epidemic.”
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The key here is to always wear a mask whenever you’re in public. One study in Lancet Digital Health found that a 10% increase in mask-wearing could lead to a three-fold increase in the odds of maintaining control over virus transmission in a community. The ability to control the spread of the coronavirus is in our hands – and on our faces.