Two weeks ago, Governor Jay Inslee mandated face mask use in public. Suddenly, concealing our faces from the bridge of our nose down to our chin with soft unwoven fabric has become more political statement than health decision. Not only do masks protect our neighbors and friends, but Goldman Sachs suggested a national mask mandate could slow the spread of coronavirus and avert a 5% loss to the GDP triggered by additional lockdown measures.
I am struggling to understand all the fuss in this community about having to wear a face mask.
A recent Gallup Poll found only a third of Americans always wear a mask when outside the home. Evidently, gender, political party affiliation and education level influence one’s stance on masks, but research reveals there might be more to the story.
Men experience “more negative emotions” when covering up their faces according to a paper co-authored by researchers Valerio Capraro and Hélène Barcelo, from Middlesex University London and the Mathematical Science Research Institute in Berkeley, California. In addition, men are more likely than women to agree that “wearing a face covering is shameful, not cool, a sign of weakness.”
Should covering up an orifice to reduce the transmission of a deadly disease be stigmatized?
The United States has been here before. In 1986, former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop released a controversial report on a new and deadly disease known as HIV/AIDS. He called for a nationwide education campaign, increased use of condoms, and more accessible HIV testing. He educated Americans in plain language that HIV could not be spread casually and emphasized the best protection against HIV involved abstinence, monogamy, or for those who practiced neither, routine condom use. He famously said, “When you have sex with someone, you are having sex with everyone they have had sex with for the last ten years, and everyone they and their partners have had sex with for the last ten years.” It is well accepted that consistent and correct condom use reduces the risk of contracting HIV through vaginal sex by up to 80%.
Face masks are essentially condoms for the face, which collect infectious “seepage” from the human body. When someone shops in the grocery store without a mask, they share respiratory droplets with others from everyone they have been in contact with over the last two weeks, and everyone their friends and friends of friends have been in contact with as well.
No one is touting face masks as a silver bullet against Covid-19; good hand-washing, social distancing, and bans on large gatherings are critical to slow spread of this disease. Neither face masks nor condoms are 100% effective and yet the majority of American 5th graders are taught “protective coverings” reduce the risk of contracting HIV and other STDs.
Shouldn’t we all just cover our nose and mouth with a mask? Yes, we should.
A review published in the Lancet medical journal of 172 studies found that “face mask use could result in a large reduction in risk of infection.” A University of Washington computer model projects up to 33,000 American lives could be saved between now and October 1 if more donned masks. Even research on hamsters is encouraging: when those with and without coronavirus infection were placed next to each other in cages, putting a surgical mask between them reduced the infection rate by 50%.
In the United States, where there is no national mask mandate, the death rate from Covid-19 stands at 385 per million.
Wearing a mask in most Asian countries does not carry the same stigma of “weakness” as it does here. In Singapore, 89% of the population masks up and the Covid-19 death rate is 4.4 per million. Approximately 70% of South Koreans put on a face mask and their Covid-19 death rate clocks in at 5.5 per million. Hong Kong leads the pack with 99% mask compliance and their death rate is under 1 per million. South America and Europe are following suit too. The Covid-19 death rate in Venezuela—one of the first to impose a national mask mandate—hovers at 2 per million. Even Cuba entered the fray, instituting mandatory masking April 6, and their Covid-19 fatalities sit at 7.5 per million. On April 6, Austria became the first European nation to order masks wearing in public and their death rate—at 78 per million—pales in comparison to the U.S.
Wearing a face mask to reduce spread of Covid-19 and touting condom use to diminish transmission of HIV and other STDs are essentially the same thing. Masking up should not be a question of politics, gender, or education. It is no more “negative” emotionally to cover our face and protect our neighbor than it is to wrap our naughty bits with latex and protect our sexual partner.
In closing, I would like to share Dr. Koop’s words from three decades ago: “We are fighting a disease, not people. Those who are already afflicted are sick and need our care as do all sick patients. The country must face this epidemic as a unified society. We must prevent the spread of AIDS while at the same time preserving our humanity and intimacy.”
We would do well to heed his wise advice.
Please put on a face mask and preserve our humanity, longevity, and most importantly, our struggling economy.