EARLY IN the coronavirus crisis, many public health officials insisted that masks could not protect the public from covid-19. But that thinking is increasingly in question. People should be encouraged to cover their faces — responsibly.
Everyone else should turn to alternatives until there are medical-grade masks to spare. There is too little evidence available to draw firm conclusions, but, in its absence, it makes intuitive sense that some barrier — even if it is cloth or paper — between one’s airways and the outside world is better than none. Officials in other nations concluded this long ago, and U.S. public health experts are coming around to this position. While homemade and even surgical masks are far from impermeable, an incremental reduction in risk would still be an improvement. Cutting the rate of transmission even a bit would help flatten the infection curve.
If mask-wearing became the norm, the likeliest benefit would be to prevent infected people who don’t yet have symptoms or know they’re sick from spreading the virus via droplets exiting their respiratory tracts. And there appear to be many asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus.
Even if more people wear masks, it will be crucial for everyone to continue washing their hands, staying home as much as possible, cleansing frequently touched surfaces and refraining from touching their faces. These things all work far better in concert. Mask-wearers should remove their facial gear carefully, without touching the outward-facing portion, and masks should be replaced or washed frequently. Mask-wearing also could encourage people to remember to keep their hands away from their faces.
Until we get a therapy or vaccine for covid-19, the best strategy is to reduce risk. As long as people do not hoard medical supplies or slack off on social distancing, having everyone cover their faces would probably depress risk at least a little bit, and at little cost. It is worth trying.