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Although lawmakers are engaged with many long-delayed, vital components of a comprehensive federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic, a national mandatory mask order — which can be implemented quickly — can be an important linchpin of a better federal response to the pandemic.

The nation, and global markets, watch in alarm as cases begin to surge in both the South and West. If we hope to avoid another crippling blow to the economy as a result of a return to lockdown or a loss of consumer confidence in the face of a tsunami of deaths, federal lawmakers need to put politics aside and insist that we put on our masks while they hammer out the details of needed, sweeping mitigation and recovery packages.

Partisan politics have made masks a third-rail issue. Some opponents of wearing them argue that masks represent an infringement on rights, like the right to make personal judgments about what represents an acceptable risk to self. Some even say they infringe on constitutional rights. Several Texas sheriffs, for example, are refusing to enforce the state mask mandate, with one proclaiming in a Facebook video that the order to wear masks “is borderline infringing on some of those constitutional rights.”

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This approach simply gets the evidence wrong.

Masks are not primarily about self-protection. They are about protecting others. Wearing an appropriate mask in an indoor public setting, even when social distancing can be maintained, is a crucial means of reducing transmission of virus-bearing droplets or aerosols from individuals who are infected to those who are not. Masks are particularly effective when combined with physical distancing and proper hand hygiene.

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Although we don’t yet know what proportion of new infections are the result of transmission from people who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, we know enough to require everyone, unless they have a medical condition like severe asthma that would make mask a health hazard, to wear a mask anytime they are in indoor public spaces or crowded outdoor spaces.

People infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, most actively shed the virus at the time symptoms begin. Individuals without symptoms who test positive for Covid-19 show viral loads as high as those with symptoms. Individuals who are infected with the virus can feel fine but still transmit virus for days before they develop any symptoms.

A national mask order can be nuanced. Evidence continues to suggest that indoor aerosol or droplet transmission is key to the spread of the epidemic. A mask probably doesn’t need to be worn while jogging or strolling through a park or lightly populated outdoor area if you won’t be close to other people. But they should be worn in urban areas with heavy pedestrian traffic, during protests, or at political rallies.

Wearing masks does not eliminate the risk of spreading Covid-19. But it prevents individuals who are infected but feel well from becoming, in essence, walking weapons. Equally important, a national mask order reduces the stigma of wearing a mask by making it clear that we are all looking after each others’ health.

As national infection rates rise, along with hospitalizations and deaths, an unambiguous national mask mandate is becoming more urgent. It should apply to every public space in the nation, with an exception for outdoor exercise or recreation with appropriate physical distancing. It must apply to every person over the age of two. And it must remain in effect until the epidemic recedes. This may mean that Americans will be compelled to wear masks for many months or until an effective vaccine is developed and widely distributed.

Masks are a small price to pay to prevent even greater disaster. Mask wearing does not represent a magic bullet, but having everyone wear masks is a step in the right direction. Mandatory mask wearing must still be backed up with public health efforts that cost money. Rapid testing, swift contact tracing, and effective isolation and quarantine are also essential. So too are continuing physical distancing requirements. This approach has curtailed the epidemic in other countries.

As a country with a limited social safety net, we are poorly positioned to cover the costs of ongoing economic sacrifice for the sake of the common good. This makes bringing the pandemic under control, and quickly, an urgent national priority.

The nation had abundant opportunities throughout this pandemic to act in a coordinated national way that would have mitigated the spread of Covid-19. We missed those chances. We are again at a turning point. If we act now, decisively, with a national order on masks combined with aggressive testing, contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine, we may yet get another opportunity to reverse the pandemic and return to normal sooner rather than later.

As we write this, several states and cities are responding with mask orders. That’s not enough for a virus that does not respect borders. Senior leadership at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday called for consistent, clear messaging about the importance of universal masking from health officials and community normalization. We agree entirely with the need for education, but encourage Americans to go further at this pivotal moment. A national mandatory mask order would give us a much-needed second chance at a national solution to a national problem.

If we want to avoid deepening our economic crisis, if we want to go back to work, if we want to save tens of thousands of lives in short order, we must de-weaponize the walking well and mandate mask wearing.

Amy Lauren Fairchild is the dean of public health at The Ohio State University. Cheryl Healton is the dean of public health at New York University. Sandro Galea is the dean of public health at Boston University.

  • The CDC told us in March that the wearing of a mask does NOT prevent the spread of the Corona Virus or any virus. Many doctors and health professionals have said that wearing a mask is harmful to the wearer because they are breathing in the germs that they exhale along with carbon dioxide, which lowers one’s own oxygen levels, and is particularly harmful to people with chronic respiratory ailments like asthma or COPD.
    So, why are we being told that we HAVE TO WEAR a mask? Is it simple to bring the American people into compliance with Communist China, which, by the way, is the perpetrator of this pandemic.
    Why are they letting convicted criminals out of prison because of the virus and arresting people for NON-COMPLIANCE??
    A society that kills millions of babies for convenience, now wants to save adult lives in the name of “sanctity of life” is nothing more than a MIND CONTROLLING Communistic Society who has two doctrines, one for the INNER CIRCLE and one for the MASSES.
    A society that thinks that hand sanitizer and masks are going to protect you from the BOOGIE MAN, CORONA, is a special kind of STUPID.
    When the people fear the government, that’s TYRANNY. When the government fears the people, that’s LIBERTY.
    By telling the American people that they HAVE TO WEAR a mask in order to be compliant, whether it is healthy or not, is like telling a woman that she has to wear a BERKAH or a man that he has to SHAVE HIS HEAD, which is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL.
    If you are promoting this agenda in order to keep your job or position then I strongly SUGGEST that you re-think your priorities and consider the seriousness of what you are doing and the effect it will have on the future of America, the home of the BRAVE and the land of the FREE, because you’re really advocating for another CIVIL WAR.

    • The initial advice on masks, driven by worries of a run on them that could deprive essential requirements for them (a problem that continues thanks to lack of leadership), was misleading, and clearly a mistake.
      And wearing a mask is not harmful to the wearer (even with COPD, which I have), in fact the opposite, and China has nothing to do with it.
      We need to wear masks to stop the spread of the virus, save lives, and prevent further damage to our economy. Don’t you care about those things?
      Civil war over the wearing of masks? With respect, that’s absurd. The enemy is the virus, not each other.

  • If I may add my two-bit on mask-wearing, I would say that masks serve two very important functions: 1. To equally lower or prevent the risk to one another from being infected — NOT just other people. 2. Just as importantly, when everyone wears a mask, you remove the STIGMA to make people shrink away from you, as when you go out to purchase grocery, pay utility bills and rent, buy food etc. You can even go back to your office — depending upon the strain of the critter — as long as you can keep the distance and improve your health habits (like frequent hand-washing). Thus, mask-wearing should be mandatory. It is certainly troublesome but then beggars are not choosers!

    • > Translation: The mask kills little by little. I can’t breathe properly.

      Then get a decent mask. It’s an easy problem to solve.

  • Nope. Won’t work.
    Wide compliance depends on people having skin in the game.
    We need readily available masks that protect the wearer, not just others.
    Otherwise, more needless deaths will occur.

  • “Masks are not primarily about self-protection. They are about protecting others” is a false narrative and suggests wearing of a mask is only for the benefit of others OR not to be taken seriously if you know yourself not to be infected.
    If this were the case, a person without the virus might feel less likely to wear one.
    Why then do healthcare providers wear them, to keep patients from becoming sick?
    To my mind,transmission of a virus is a two way street. Though I’m not infected, others around me may be and I take precautions to protect myself much more than my risk to others.
    Having worked in the healthcare field many years (OR), I wore a mask not only to protect our patients but also to protect ourselves from various contaminants.
    I trust that my mask reasonably protects me from others which is why I wear it in the first place.

    • I agree with your post but I’m sure that the authors meant to say “Masks, for the general public, are not primarily about self-protection. They are about protecting others”.

  • Americans, by not wearing masks, are killing Americans. And, tanking American businesses and our economy. And a lot more. To remedy this, a national mandate ( aka law ) must be enacted immediately. And enforced — if Americans fail to comply — with mandatory incarceration AND a $25,000 fine payable upon arrest for breaking the most important law our country had ever passed. Everything depends on wearing masks to off set the ravages of this disease. And will prepare us for the next viral diseases to come.

  • One of the CDC”s doctors announced on TV .that the research data on contact tracing and subsequent infection by pre and asymtomatic were non existent. According to the WHO in mid June.Your article states as fact what the WHO said is false. Is there studies that prove it is transmitted by asymptomatic carriers.

  • Thank you for this excellent article. You are the experts whose voices should be heard, not politicians.

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