The nation is five months and more than 120,000 lives into its worst disease outbreak in a century and, short of a vaccine or cure, only a few effective tools remain for staving off new coronavirus infections.
Americans can recite them by heart. Wash your hands frequently. Stay at least 6 feet from others. And wear a face mask.
These low-tech measures have taken on even greater urgency since stay-at-home orders have been relaxed for a nation with isolation fatigue and people return to work and play, to protest and rally. The consequent spike in cases has been alarming, with 25 states reporting increases, including a near doubling in one week of new COVID infections in Arizona, Florida and Texas.
Of the available anti-infection steps, face masks are the most effective and important. “My mask protects you; your mask protects me,” has become the mantra among public health officials. Yet, sadly, masks have become yet another controversial cultural schism in a riven nation.
“It is heartbreaking to see that (wearing masks) has become somehow a political statement, because that never should have happened,” Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told the Editorial Board on Tuesday. “This is really about public health, and it shouldn’t matter exactly what your politics are.”
To be sure, some of the messaging about masks has been confusing. At the outset of the outbreak, mask wearing was discouraged, in part because of a shortage of equipment for health care workers on the front lines. But with scientists now aware that COVID-19 is frequently spread by people before they show any symptoms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House coronavirus task force urge the wearing of face coverings. The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, wore a mask to congressional testimony Tuesday as a “symbol for people to see that that’s the kind of thing you should be doing.”
The latest research estimates that, in states where masks are required, some 230,000 to 450,000 infections might have been averted; infections in Germany were cut by 40% because of masks; and face coverings deflect 90% of exhaled breath that can infect others with viral droplets. In Asian countries such as China and Japan, where the wearing of masks has been strictly enforced or is a cultural norm, COVID death rates have been far lower than in the United States.
Good leaders lead by example, but President Donald Trump has only stoked the furor over masks with his stubborn refusal to wear a face covering in public. The ripple effect has been predictable. Communities have backed off on mandating masks, in some cases after death threats were received.
But cities like Miami and states like California are pushing forward with requiring them, and police in some locales are starting to write citations for people who flout the rules.
With what Fauci called “a disturbing surge” in infections, it’s time more states and communities began requiring that they be worn in public areas, particularly indoors, and preserving the option to fine those who ignore warnings.
If cigarette smoking can be restricted as a health hazard, it’s no less provocative to require face coverings to prevent another serious illness.
USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Face masks work. They need to be mandatory.