Covering Up: The Role of Face Masks in Containing the Coronavirus

During the early stages of the novel Coronavirus, CDC officials and health workers warned of an unfiltered mask’s inadequacy at preventing contamination and discouraged widespread usage. Instead, they urged Americans to focus on other preventative measures: avid hand washing, avoiding crowded areas, refraining from traveling, and, of course, social distancing. Now, almost a month later, the CDC has switched their initial position, and millions of Americans have resorted to extreme measures to get their hands on personal protective equipment (PPE). How did this happen?

What was said early on regarding disposable masks still holds true; they do not guarantee complete safety from contracting the virus. Everyday face masks, such as loose-fitting surgical masks, are not intended to filter the microscopic droplets that are transmitted through hallmark symptoms of the illness such as coughs and sneezes. Only respirators, like the 3M N95 respirator or half-mask respirators, can block out airborne contaminants. However, these types of masks are not easily accessible and are reserved for medical professionals fighting the pandemic on the front line, or for the immunocompromised.

Despite not being able to prevent someone from initially contracting the illness, wearing more widely-available masks has proven extremely helpful in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Wearing any type of facial barrier, whether it is a disposable medical mask or a bandana folded over an elastic, can prevent a contaminated person from spreading virions to another. After the initial appearance of COVID-19, the Czech Republic imposed strict regulations to alleviate the spread of the disease. One of these measures required all ten million residents to wear masks, homemade or otherwise, when leaving their homes. The Czech government has been heavily criticized for its stringent approach; however, it has proven effective: the country has been able to stabilize the number of cases at just under 6,000 as of April 12. If these measures have been shown to contain the spread of the virus drastically, why haven’t other nations followed suit in implementing a mandatory nationwide mask order? 

For many countries, most notably the United States, wearing face masks in public spaces has not yet been made compulsory. The Trump administration has repeatedly been equivocal on its position regarding face masks. The government recognizes the importance and benefit of implementing PPE regulations towards the general public, however, fear that making mask-wearing mandatory would put health care workers in a dangerous position with the ever-depleting stock of masks. In response, the Trump administration has made an agreement with the American manufacturer 3M to import over 100 million respirators from China and continue exporting to countries in need. Despite acknowledging the acute need for covering your face and mouth, especially after reports that up to a quarter of cases are asymptomatic, President Trump expressed that he would not be practicing the safety measure due to personal preference. At a press briefing earlier this week carrying a nonchalant demeanor, he said, “You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I am choosing not to do it. But some people may want to do it, and that’s OK. It may be good. Probably will — they’re making a recommendation. It’s only a recommendation. It’s voluntary.”

Despite confusing and somewhat misleading messages from the President, Americans have not shied down from joining the fight against the onslaught of the virus. With an ever-increasing death rate and a plethora of hospitalizations, fashion brands, nonprofit organizations, and countless citizens have dedicated their time spent social distancing towards making masks to protect medical workers, homeless people, and the immunocompromised. Numerous people have been queuing outside of fabric and craft stores to buy mask-making supplies, while countless articles and posts detailing how to create homemade masks are circulating social media. Some states and cities are starting to impose their own regulations regarding PPE and incentivizing people to avoid going out in public without a mask.

Although these efforts have helped regulate the spread of the virus and keep populations safe, they have begun taking a toll on the environment. Even though the CDC still strongly advises that people continue to practice social distancing, many have started to put their faith in masks and gone against recommendations to remain inside. With the rapidly increasing usage of disposable masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment, streets, parks, landfills, and grocery store parking lots are slowly being populated by used gear. Most masks are not made of biodegradable material, and can quickly begin to make their ways into waterways and harm animal populations. Additionally, the inevitable need to clean up littered medical waste puts essential workers in even greater danger. While it is vital for people to play their part in aiding public health, it is just as important for the public to be mindful of the environment and considerate towards those on the front lines.

Photo from Shutterstock.

Written by Melissa Damasceno for The Revere.