It's Time to Face Facts, America: Masks Work | WIRED

Official advice has been confusing, but the science isn't hard to grok. Everyone should cover-up.

WHEN YOU LOOK at photos of Americans during the 1918 influenza pandemic, one feature stands out above all else: masks. Fabric, usually white gauze, covers nearly every face. Across the country, public health experts recommended universal mask-wearing, and some cities ordered residents to wear them under penalty of fine or imprisonment. The Red Cross made thousands of cloth masks and distributed them for free. Newspapers published instructions for sewing masks at home. “Make any kind of a mask … and use it immediately and at all times,” the Boston commissioner of health pleaded. “Even a handkerchief held in place over the face is better than nothing.”

After the 1918 pandemic, the prophylactic use of masks among the general public largely fell out of favor in America and much of the West. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has almost never advised healthy people to wear masks in public to prevent influenza or other respiratory diseases. 

In the past few months, with medical supplies dangerously diminished, the CDC, US surgeon general Jerome Adams, and the World Health Organization have urged people not to buy masks, paradoxically claiming that masks are both essential for the safety of health care workers and incapable of protecting the public from COVID-19. (WIRED's editorial staff, like the CDC, suggests that healthy people not wear masks.)

Recently, some experts have disputed this contradictory advice. They propose that widespread use of masks is one of the many reasons why China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have controlled outbreaks of coronavirus much more effectively than the US and Europe. “Of course masks work,” sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote in a New York Times editorial. “Their use has always been advised as part of the standard response to being around infected people.” Public health expert Shan Soe-Lin and epidemiologist Robert Hecht made a similar argument in the Boston Globe: “We need to change our perception that masks are only for sick people and that it’s weird or shameful to wear one … If more people donned masks it would become a social norm as well as a public health good.” Last week, George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that America and Europe are making a "big mistake" by not telling the public to wear masks during the ongoing pandemic.

It is unequivocally true that masks must be prioritized for health care workers in any country suffering from a shortage of personal protective equipment. But the conflicting claims and guidelines regarding their use raise three questions of the utmost urgency: Do masks work? Should everyone wear them? And if there aren’t enough medical-grade masks for the general public, is it possible to make a viable substitute at home? Decades of scientific research, lessons from past pandemics, and common sense suggest the answer to all of these questions is yes.

Considering how badly the US government has botched its response to the ongoing pandemic, and how much better most Asian countries have fared so far, it’s difficult to believe that Japan once regarded America’s management of a viral outbreak as progressive. Had the US federal government listened to expert warnings about an inevitable pandemic and taken the necessary precautions years ago—by investing in domestic mask production, for instance—we would not be faced with such a dire shortage of basic medical equipment today. Mask manufacturers around the world are working overtime and expanding their operations, but it remains uncertain whether they will meet the surging demand; some of the necessary machines cost millions of dollars and take months to construct.

3M ramps up N95 respirator production as demand surges from global coronavirus outbreak

To fill the surge in demand for the devices, particularly the N95 respirator, 3M is ramping up production, which means hosting job fairs, making offers on the spot and expanding its assembly line with robots.

In Aberdeen, South Dakota, more than 650 employees at one of 3M’s largest manufacturing facilities are working overtime to increase face mask production.

The N95 respirator filters 95% of airborne particles, and can even filter out bacteria and viruses, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Many face masks on the market, including surgical masks, do not effectively filter out particles in the air.

Health-care professionals are concerned that 3M and other respirator manufacturers like Honeywell and Kimberly-Clark won’t be able to fulfill all the orders flooding in.

To overcome the present crisis we must summon more than ingenuity and industry, however. We need solidarity. As we move closer to a phase of the pandemic in which people are allowed to mingle again but there is still no vaccine—and therefore still a chance of new outbreaks—universal masking may become even more imperative. The US desperately needs to revive the ethic embodied by the legions of gauze-wrapped faces in photos from 1918. “You must wear a mask not only to protect yourself but your children and your neighbor,” the Red Cross implored a century ago. “The man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker.”

It's Time to Face Facts, America: Masks Work | WIRED: