As cases of COVID-19 climb to an all-time high, North Carolina (led by Governor Roy Cooper and North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen) has followed Raleigh’s lead. Masks are now mandatory in places where social distancing is not feasible. The new policy took effect 5 p.m. on June 25. But will the masks help in North Carolina?
The state’s new rule enters a public debate as to whether masks even make a difference in stopping the spread of COVID-19. Many experts must believe they make an impact, or why does the list of states mandating masks continue to grow? Let’s take a look.
Who recommends masks as a means to reduce the spread of COVID-19?
Our national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for one. The CDC recommends masks in public settings, especially if you’re indoors and less than six feet apart from other people.
And the World Health Organization offers similar instructions, advising everyone to wear a mask when leaving their home. They reason that, given WHO data which suggests that up to 80% of COVID-19 cases have minimal if any symptoms, masks are crucial safeguards. How does close proximity with someone become even riskier? When the CDC finds that, in the other 20% of people which show symptoms, transmission tends to occur one to three days BEFORE symptoms even begin.
In other words, even if you feel fine while visiting your parents (or grandparents), you could be spreading the disease as you greet them. What’s perhaps worse is that when you enjoy a casual, mask-free conversations in a crowded restaurant or office space, the transmissions can skyrocket.
Seriously. Did you hear what happened after a mask-free choir practice attended by 61 people in Washington? A single person arrived while infected, and no one wore masks. The disease spread to 87% of the people in that space, with 32 confirmed cases and another 20 likely infected.
All because ONE person had unknowingly been infected. One case quickly turned to 30-50 more.
With such data overwhelmingly evident, Dr. Cohen fully supports masks for North Carolina – especially if it will help us regain some normalcy in the COVID-chaos.
“I know North Carolinians are strong, resilient and care deeply about our communities,” she said. “We pride ourselves on helping our neighbors. The best way we can do that now is by taking the simple action of wearing a face covering that covers your nose and mouth. If we each do our part, we can get back to the people and places we love.”
But do cloth masks actually prevent the spread?
We don’t have the clinical trials to prove masks’ effectiveness right now, though you can bet trials are underway. Many people are rushing back to a 2015 study which compared the efficacy of cloth versus surgical masks. Thankfully for healthcare workers everywhere, the surgical masks offered vastly greater protection. The study’s findings advise healthcare workers to avoid cloth masks, especially in situations where they must be re-worn for long periods. When the cloth masks retain moisture, the wearer faces an increased risk of infection. Yet the researchers have already drawn up an addendum in regards to COVID-19. It reminds us that any mask is better than no mask, and that we can take steps to ensure even cloth masks are more effective: washing them after each use and wearing them properly.
While cloth masks are not as effective as N-95 or surgical masks, even homemade masks have been found to slow the spread, especially among asymptomatic carriers. University researchers released findings on June 12 that supported using masks. When comparing country-wide data, in countries where mask-use was normalized and common, the virus spread at a rate of 8.0% each week. Compare that rate to 54% each week in non-mask wearing countries.
Another study published in the Journal Health Affairs siphoned data from the natural experiment that took place in the US between April 8 and May 15. Its methods compared case rates and state government mandates for face mask use in public spaces. Such measures were made in 15 states during this time. What did the researchers turn up? The face mask use likely prevented hundreds of thousands of new cases (an estimated 230,000-450,000 cases were prevented).
Though you do need to wear the mask correctly for it to make a difference. Not sure how? Get your smile on by watching “Mask School” for a quick 101.
Bottom line for Masks in North Carolina?
We can’t control much during this pandemic. One thing we can control is taking extra measures to reduce not only our own risk, but the risk for those around us. The evidence is clear on this one: masks make a difference in preventing COVID-19 transmission.
We can continue to wash our hands diligently. Maintain social distancing. And when you’re out grocery shopping or hitting up the hair salon, why not pop on that ol’ mask?
One day, you might regret not wearing a mask, especially if you learn that you were the reason the virus infected someone close to you.
You will never regret trying to do the right thing in order to protect those you love.