We've long known that face masks are an essential tool in slowing the spread of COVID-19, and that their widespread use has had a dramatic impact on the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. At the same time, many people have been holding out hope that the development of a COVID vaccine will be able to help the country contain the outbreak once and for all, and eventually return us to normalcy. But at a Senate committee hearing on Sept. 16, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert R. Redfield, MD, relayed a shocking reality check: Masks may offer more effective protection from COVID than a vaccine.
"We have clear scientific evidence they work," Redfield said of face coverings. "This face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID-19 than when I take a COVID vaccine."
Redfield also called face masks "the most powerful public health tool we have." "I appeal to all Americans to embrace these face coverings," he added.
The idea that face masks are incredibly useful in mitigating the spread of the virus is not news, but the notion that they could ultimately be more important than a vaccine is certain to change the way many people think about the future of the pandemic. After all, the potential COVID-19 vaccine is often discussed as the way that life will return to how it was in early 2020. Anthony Fauci, MD, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, recently described returning to theaters—sans masks—as something that might be possible a year after a vaccine is developed.
But it's important to note that any talk of a vaccine is still theoretical: There are multiple vaccines in development, and whichever we end up with may not be as effective as experts hope it will be. In fact, it's likely that the COVID vaccine will not prevent infection entirely, but will instead decrease the likelihood of getting sick, and of developing a severe infection.
To put things in perspective, a July study from the University of California, Davis found that face masks may decrease your own risk of contracting COVID by 65 percent. (Masks are even more useful at preventing those around you from getting sick, if you are a carrier.) And while scientists are hoping to develop a coronavirus vaccine that's 75 percent effective, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will authorize a vaccine that is only 50 percent effective.
With that in mind, Redfield's words make some sense—the proven effectiveness of masks in keeping us safe from coronavirus may actually make them a more important tool in COVID containment than a vaccine, which is still a major unknown. Nevertheless, it's a shocking statement to consider, especially for people who have been looking to the COVID vaccine as the end of the pandemic, or perhaps, at least, the end of needing to wear masks. And for more guidance from the CDC, 40 Percent of COVID Patients Went Here Before Getting Sick, CDC Says.