An Epidemiologist Says We Need to Wear Masks Until Most of Us Are Immune to COVID-19

Samantha Brodsky

In mid-July, CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, urged for universal masking across the US to get the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic under control. As of July 20, 28 states have statewide mandates requiring the use of face coverings in public, CNBC reports. If you live in those states, follow suit, and even if your state is not on the list, it's a good idea to wear masks, especially when indoors with other people where there is poor ventilation as well as when outdoors and you know you can't maintain physical distancing. And follow masking guidelines for businesses and individual cities.

Masks protect you, but most importantly, they protect others from virus-containing respiratory droplets that you may unknowingly (or knowingly) expel. Specifically, it's said that store-bought cone-style masks and double-layered, well-fitted cotton ones are the most effective non-medical-grade masks for the general public. That being said, masking has become politicized. "You've got to work way harder in order to try to convince the people who already are convinced that masking either doesn't work or takes away their liberty in some way," Janet Baseman, PhD, MPH, associate dean of the school of public health and professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, told POPSUGAR.

Masking, Dr. Baseman said, minimizes the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 through respiratory droplets and smaller aerosols that can linger in the air. Using that form of protection, therefore, is important until, put simply, "we worry less about people getting sick." This would be achieved through effective vaccination and treatments so that our hospitals are not overrun and we aren't getting ill in large numbers, she said. In other words, "it's going to be a while."

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While she can't quantify the amount of time it'll take for us to be able to safely gather in public without masks, Dr. Baseman did say herd immunity needs to be reached in order for public health officials to consider telling people they no longer should wear masks. Herd immunity means the majority of a population is immune to an infectious disease, and though we do not know the duration of human immunity to COVID-19, a vaccine would speed along herd immunity in a safer way than if we loosened up on protection guidelines to let natural exposure do the work, she said (this was echoed by experts we've spoken to in a previous interview).

Dr. Baseman concluded that masking is not such a big deal in the grand scheme of things, even if we had to do it for a year or longer, when we're thinking about the benefit of the community as a whole. "This is what went wrong with the shutdowns," she said. "People felt willing to stay home for two weeks, but after two weeks, they said, 'I'm done.' And I feel like it's the same with masks." She also said covering your mouth and nose is a small price to pay to be able to safely attend more social activities - something we all want to get back to.

At this point, physically distancing from others and washing your hands are modes of protection that are crucial as well. Don't forget those, and in case it's not already obvious, don't forget to grab your mask before you leave the house and know you'll be near other people. It's a simple ask.

POPSUGAR aims to give you the most accurate and up-to-date information about the coronavirus, but details and recommendations about this pandemic may have changed since publication. For the latest information on COVID-19, please check out resources from the WHO, CDC, and local public health departments.

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