The coronavirus pandemic has created a plethora of natural experiments.
One of the most important is underway now, with a growing number of states requiring residents to wear masks. Alabama, Minnesota, Ohio and Vermont governors all issued mandates in the past few days, while others, including in Florida and Georgia, recommend but don’t require them.
It’s hard to overestimate the potential benefit if the move proves successful. With no natural immunity and no drugs or vaccines to help ward off infection, personal behavior is the only tool available to get the outbreak under control.
While businesses and schools are trying to reopen, researchers predict there may be an even bigger surge of the virus when the weather in the Northern Hemisphere turns colder. Being able to limit its spread via masks, which are inexpensive, easy to use and cause few complications, would bolster reopening efforts.
There is a growing amount of data showing masks work. Even in cramped quarters, like aircraft carriers and nursing homes, spread of the pathogen to those wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines is significantly less likely. States that mandated masks early in the outbreak or had policies supporting them had slower spread and fewer deaths. Still, success will require concerted and consistent effort.
The political tension between protecting the public and allowing states and citizens to exercise their individual rights has complicated the situation. Some areas opened early, allowing restaurants, bars and businesses to resume services without mask requirements, particularly across the south. Many subsequently experienced a surge in cases.
It’s unclear if a universal mask requirement would have averted it. Early in the outbreak, even infectious-disease experts advised people not to wear masks. There were two reasons: an effort to preserve the limited number available for high-risk health care workers and lack of definitive data showing they would offer any protection with low levels of circulating virus. Its exponential spread is now providing plenty of anecdotal, and some scientific, evidence of benefit.
President Donald Trump, who famously resisted wearing a mask and stressed that mask-wearing recommendations from his public health experts weren’t requirements, this week changed his tune. He tweeted an image of himself wearing one and saying it was patriotic, then urged Americans to get on board during a press briefing.
“Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact,” he said. “We’re asking everybody when you are not able to socially distance, wear a mask.”
The politicians aren’t alone. Most major retailers, including Wal-Mart and Target, as well as airlines like Southwest, American and Delta, are now requiring masks. Exceptions aren’t honored. Even McDonald’s wants customers to cover their mouths and noses while picking up their food.
The efforts now underway may broaden the path to reopening the global economy and getting the pandemic under control. We may all lament that we didn’t act sooner.
There are signs that case numbers in the southern U.S. Sun Belt states are beginning to moderate, even as hospitalizations and deaths rise. Keep track of the latest developments with our interactive graphic.
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