To mask, or not to mask? That is the question.

And it needs an answer — YES — right away.

Look at photographs or video of people walking in the Czech Republic or Hong Kong, two countries where the Covid-19 epidemic appears to be contained, and almost everyone is wearing a face mask. In the United States, by contrast, only a minority of people wear masks when they are out in public.

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Covid-19 has emerged as a global, once-in-a-century pandemic that is affecting all nations. Its high transmissibility (R factor) has produced geometric increases in seriously ill individuals and overburdened health care systems.

Social distancing appears to be buying some time to improve screening for the disease, conduct contact tracing, and develop therapeutics such as antivirals, neutralizing antibodies, and ultimately vaccines. Yet despite heroic efforts and high economic cost, cases and deaths continue to mount across the U.S.

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Can we do more? Yes. I believe that the federal government and all of the states should enforce a nationwide stay-at-home directive for the month of April and mandate universal face mask use outdoors until an effective vaccine is available. While authorities have so far discouraged citizens from using face masks, the recent data of community spread by asymptomatic individuals is a game-changer for the face mask conversation.

To be clear, we must first ensure an adequate supply of face masks for our health care providers. Once our manufacturing capability has increased, new cases have significantly declined, and we are at a low level of infection — such as what China is currently experiencing — we should quickly pivot to face mask use for the general public.

Countries in which face mask use is routine, such as Taiwan and Japan, have experienced dramatically flatter curves than countries where it is not. As a recent review in the Lancet noted, “As evidence suggests Covid-19 could be transmitted before symptom onset, community transmission might be reduced if everyone, including people who have been infected but are asymptomatic and contagious, wear face masks.”

A national call to action for universal face mask use outdoors would not only accelerate the decline in the ability of an individuals to infect others in the community but also prevent a resurgence of infections — a real possibility given the asynchronous hotspots and high mobility of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus throughout the U.S. Pervasive use of face masks could also accelerate the resumption of normal economic activity across the country.

Starting today, the White House Coronavirus Task Force, in accordance with the Defense Production Act, should direct our manufacturing base to build capacity beyond the efforts of 3M, which has doubled global production of N95 face masks to about 100 million a month, and is planning to push that to 2 billion within a year. The country must repurpose existing manufacturing capacity to stockpile critical supplies and set a challenge to the nation’s manufacturers to produce a surplus of 1 billion masks by the end of April 2020 and at least 1 billion per week thereafter. This would provide all Americans with several masks per week. Production costs should be less than $1 per mask or $1 billion per week.

How do we do this? Let’s go all-in for the next eight weeks — implement a nationwide stay-at-home directive, ramp up face mask manufacturing capacity, and for now use makeshift face masks until ideal units become available for public use. This will buy precious time for the system to catch-up and enable America’s return to normalized social interactions, resumption of school and work, and restart our consumer economy. The return on investment would be enormous.

Now is the time to act. Our lives and our livelihood depend on it.

Ronald A. DePinho, M.D., is a distinguished university professor and the past president of MD Anderson Cancer Center and founder of several biotechnology companies.

  • I do not want to get too political, this website is for medical information, but they cross lines here – the foreign press has been clear about the value of the face masks for some time – you can find it by looking – scientists who are interviewed to discuss the epidemic will point out that South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Japan all use face masks, and all are much better off than the US.
    Telling people to keep 6 feet away from others and wash their hands has lead them to believe – HAD lead them to believe – they did not need to worry much about airborne infection, when it was always the major danger.
    Telling them they need masks, when none are available, would have caused great anger – but it would also make a lot of people be much more careful to stay further than 6 feet. I believe we robbed ourselves of most of the benefits of the stay at home orders by not scaring people enough. What I saw in the stores was people with no concerns about their safety, only that they not run out of toilet paper, transmitting the virus to each other in large numbers.
    If you think about it, at any point in time, with all the problems we have, we can rid ourselves of this virus by stopping the spread for a few weeks – and all that takes is caution.
    If the Feds get their act together we will have the masks in a few more weeks, and people by then will use them after, they see 1,000 people dying every day.

  • The masks that used in Asia like Japan, Hong Kong are not Not N95. Those are ordinary 3 layered face masks. Which are easily manufactured and the machines can be easily assembled quickly, cheaply (100,000 US dollars in 3 weeks) .The capacity of those machine is estimated about 100,000 masked per day each. I see no point why Western Government do not endeavor to make their own masks themselves. Also it costs much cheaper than throwing trillion of dollars ( may be much more if the pandemic persists) just to resuscitates the economy.

  • “A wild-caught immunity would leave the majority of the population stronger.”

    There is as yet, no solid evidence of this. Many epidemiologists have speculated that this might be the case (as it is with various other diseases) and it is certainly to be hoped – but the truth is we just don’t know. There have been cases reported of people getting re-infected shortly after having recovered. Many viruses do indeed confer immunity on previously-infected patients but not all do.

  • I was trying to get it locally, but everyone is out of stock. They also said on TV not to go out. Where can I buy and have it delivered to me?

    • I received my order yesterday. I agree they are good quality and comfortable, adjust to my nose witch is important, unlike the previous masks I had.
      277,522 cases in the US at this moment. and 7,403 total deaths. We have to be prepared before is too late!

  • My company started marking face mask with a face shield and is reaching out
    to find a source for distribution. Anyone that is interested in finding out more please send me a email and the quantity and price range you’re looking for.
    Pictures are available.

    • I am 69 yo w/emphysema. In addition, a stroke a year ago.

      Please mail as quickly as advertised. RESPECTFULLY, Ann

  • Is there a reason you can’t use bladder protection pads cotton enhanced drifit pads as masks. The ones I have fit over the nose and chin all the way to ears. It’s adheasive so it sticks to my face. You have to see it to believe how perfect it fits but wondered if they are made with something I shouldn’t breath

    • You should look to see if they have an ingredient list on there I’m sorry to sound naive never been in contact w/ one of those

  • If back in February Mayor DeBlasio had made masks and gloves mandatory in public NYC would be not be in the situation it is today. I live and shop in NYC. Subways and grocery stores were packed back then. Even today many are not respecting 6ft rule which may not even be protective enough.

    Howard Zucker (NY Commissioner of Health) is so wrong… and George Gao head of CDC in China is so right. There is a reason Asian countries are faring so much better — masks do make a big difference.

    Asian countries were prepared because of SARS-1 and as this article states made masks mandatory.

    Yes, you will have to educate people on how to use masks. Simply stop the washing hands video and show people how to use masks.

    Howard Zucker says there is no data on masks…

    Perhaps statnews.com can do an online survey asking people who tested positive (and negative) if they wore face masks (and or gloves in public)… would be interested to see this data.

    • Thank you for the post. With all the clear major screwups by Federal governments, China and US, and WHO, it still appears that what local authorities do, or dont’ do, make’s a big difference. I was kind of shocked by this health boss Zucker downplaying the good advice finally put out on masks. SO MUCH DATA FOR SO LONG.

  • Unless you wear an air tight mask like a scuba diver you are asking for more ptrblems by having to handle them so much. We handle too many things now that have the virus like even our mail and groceries. Bad idea!

  • Do you guys think the washable face masks that you wear snowboarding would help? At least a bit? They’re washable which is a good thing. I wouldn’t touch it to adjust just when I get home to take it off from the back. I think it’s better than nothing TBH. I see ladies wearing scarves now.

    • These are all great comments. The best mask wilk be the one that people actually use. Light weight, easy to don and take off. And how about printed themes to make them a little stylish; like the balaclava style masks marketed now with grins, emblems, etc. What do y’all think?

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