Wearing a face mask prior to the COVID-19 outbreak may have seemed silly—but due to the ever-increasing cases of the virus, the benefits of wearing face masks could help slow its spread, stated Huo Jingnan, Allison Aubrey, and Carmel Wroth of NPR (National Public Radio), a non-profit media organization.
Public health institute CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) said it is reviewing its policy and may also be considering a recommendation to encourage the broader use of face masks. CDC Director Robert Redfield said, “I can tell you that the data and this issue of whether it's going to contribute [to prevention] is being aggressively reviewed as we speak.” As of this writing, CDC’s official website stated that only sick people or those who are caring for someone who is sick and unable to wear a mask need to wear a face mask.
Survey Highlights An Inadequate Supply of Medical Equipment
The United States Conference of Mayors (USCM), the official non-partisan organization of cities with populations of 30,000 or above, published a new survey of 213 cities from 41 states and Puerto Rico with regard to the shortage of COVID-19 emergency equipment all over the country. Six of the cities have a population of more than one million while 45 have populations below 50,000.
The USCM found that 91.5% of the surveyed cities do not have an adequate supply of face masks for their first responders and medical personnel. 88.2% do not have an adequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) other than face masks to safeguard these personnel. Moreover, 92.1% of cities do not even have an adequate supply of test kits and 85% do not have enough supply of ventilators for use by health facilities in their city or area.
Unfortunately, 62.4% did not receive emergency equipment or supplies from their State. Of those receiving help, 84.6% said it is not enough to supply their needs. The cities in the survey also provided estimates for the amount of supplies needed: 28.5 million face masks, 24.4 million PPE items, 7.9 million test kits, and 139,000 ventilators.
Malaysians’ Perceptions On the Coronavirus Outbreak
According to a poll by international agency YouGov Omnibus, 57% of 4,640 Malaysians said that the government should provide free face masks, cited The Star, an English-language newspaper in Malaysia. 55% believed that the government should bolster the production of masks within Malaysia to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Most of the Malaysians in the survey were scared of contracting the coronavirus, with 82% saying they were scared (versus 44% of those who said “very scared” and 14% “not scared.”). The survey also found that 86% of Malaysians aged between 18 and 24 were more likely to be scared of the virus compared to 57% of those aged 55 and older.
85% of women and 84% of those with kids under 18 years were more likely to be afraid of the virus. About 85% of respondents earning below RM 4,000 a month ($912) were more likely to be scared than those earning higher than RM 8,000 ($1,825) a month. About 78% said they improved their personal hygiene and 55% wore a face mask when going to public places.
When asked if the Malaysian government was doing enough, 55% thought that the government was taking the right amount of measures to curb the virus, compared to 36% of respondents who felt the measures were not enough.
Changing the Recommendation On Masks
Dr. Deborah Birx, who serves as the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, noted that the task force is still discussing whether the recommendation on masks should be changed. Other public health experts raised this issue, with FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb telling NPR in an interview that face masks offer an additional layer of protection for those who have to venture outside their homes.
Wearing a face mask is a step people can take in addition to hand washing and avoiding public gatherings. According to a paper by Gottlieb, the use of face masks should be encouraged for the common good, especially during this time of social distancing. He asserted, “Face masks will be most effective at slowing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 if they are widely used, because they may help prevent people who are asymptomatically infected from transmitting the disease unknowingly.”
Another prominent public health leader in China also argued for the widespread use of face masks in public. George Gao, the director general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told academic journal Science that the US and Europe are committing a “big mistake” with citizens not wearing masks during the pandemic. Gao echoed the same sentiments as Gottlieb, adding that wearing face masks can prevent droplets—which carry the virus—from infecting others.
Asymptomatic People Should Wear Masks, But Mask Shortage Is A Big Issue
Elaine Shuo Feng, an infectious disease epidemiology researcher at the Oxford Vaccine Group at the University of Oxford, stated, "If these asymptomatic people could wear face masks, then it could be helpful to reduce the transmission in the community.”
For Gottlieb, masks may be a “good socially responsible insurance policy,” as it prevents other people from getting sick. Sadly, there is a shortage of masks in the US, as mentioned in the above-mentioned survey.
William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, suggested that homemade masks might help protect individuals from the virus, albeit in small ways. Still, homemade alternatives may not be effective if they are not constructed or handled properly. Hence, Gottlieb argued that the CDC should create guidelines on how people can construct their own cotton masks. He added, “Cotton masks constructed in a proper way should provide a reasonable degree of protection from people being able to transmit the virus.”
Experts Weigh in on Research About Face Masks
There’s no definitive evidence that face masks will protect someone from getting infected. Randomized controlled trials—which is a gold standard for testing the effectiveness of an intervention— are limited and results from those studies were inconclusive, Feng noted. Moreover, studies stating that wearing masks may not be effective at preventing viruses from spreading could be partly blamed on people in those trials not wearing their masks properly.
"If you don't wear the mask properly, and if there's a lot of chances for you to get infected, then the mask may not do a lot of good," asserted Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology and a mask researcher at the University of Hong Kong's School of Public Health, cited Hilary Brueck of Business Insider, a business website.
If citizens are going to wear masks when going out, they have to wear it properly and discard it when it gets damp or moist, advised Saski Popescu, an infectious disease researcher and biodefense consultant. Wearers should not touch the front of the mask or reach under to scratch their nose or mouth; otherwise, it could give “a false sense of security,” she warned.
There’s still debate surrounding the use of face masks. Countries should have an adequate supply of those for both frontliners and citizens. Face masks offer another layer of protection from the virus, but people should wear and discard them properly.