Face masks are a crucial tool in helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And if enough people aren’t wearing them, a national mask mandate could—and probably should—be in our future, experts say.
Considering how many new cases we’re seeing every day in the U.S. and that our situation is likely to only get more dire in the coming winter months, “it’s time to consider a limited and temporary national mask mandate,” Scott Gottlieb, M.D., former commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), wrote in a new op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “A mandate can be expressly limited to the next two months. The inconvenience would allow the country to preserve health-care capacity and keep more schools and businesses open,” he continued. “Even if masks are only incrementally helpful, they are among the least economically costly and burdensome options for reducing spread.”
In fact, a new study published in Nature Medicine suggests that we could save about 130,000 lives by the end of February 2021 if everyone wears a mask when in public. Even with just 85% of people wearing masks in public we could save about 96,000 lives, the study authors say.
With numbers like those, Dr. Gottlieb isn’t the only one coming around to the idea of a mask mandate. After previously saying that he wasn’t in favor of the concept a few months ago, Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN last week that ” if people are not wearing masks, then maybe we should be mandating it.” And at the last presidential debate, Joe Biden mentioned that a mask mandate would be part of his COVID-19 plan if he became president.
Why all the fuss about masks? It has to do with the most common way COVID-19 spreads, which is through respiratory droplets that contain viral particles. People who have COVID-19 can spread those droplets when they talk, sneeze, cough, sing, or yell. From there, the droplets can land in other people’s mouths, noses, or eyes, or other people might inhale those droplets. A face mask can prevent the wearer from spreading those droplets and, in some cases, it can also prevent the wearer from inhaling other people’s droplets.
Knowing the face masks (along with social distancing and frequent hand washing) can really help protect people from coronavirus, some local governments already have mask mandates in effect. But adherence to those mandates varies significantly by state, according to a recent CNN report. Another issue is that we know small indoor gatherings, which are likely to be exempt from public mask mandates, are increasingly becoming a source of COVID-19 spread, SELF explained previously.
A national mask mandate clearly wouldn’t solve the pandemic on its own, but many experts now agree with Dr. Gottlieb’s position that it would be a cost-effective way to make a big difference—and potentially save a lot of lives. A mask mandate would “would cost us little” and “it would save lives and prevent much more costly interventions later,” Ashish J. Kha, Ph.D., dean of the Brown University School of Public Health said on Twitter.
“We need to take personal responsibility for our health, our family’s health, our community’s health, and our nation’s health. That means wearing a mask in the middle of a pandemic. We’ve shirked that responsibility. IT’S TIME FOR A MASK MANDATE,” Celine Gounder, M.D., clinical assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, wrote on Twitter.
“Should we have a mask mandate? Yes. This should have happened a long time ago,” Abraar Karan, M.D., an internal medicine physician at Brigham and Womens Hospital and Harvard Medical School, wrote on Twitter.
Leana Wen, M.D., also agreed that a mask mandate is necessary. “There’s plenty of precedent,” she said on Twitter. “We don’t allow people to drive while intoxicated. People should have a right [to] NOT be infected by others.”
We know that wearing masks can help prevent the coronavirus from spreading, and as we head into the winter months, a mask mandate could be necessary to make sure everyone is taking this small step to protect themselves and others.