Health and Healthcare Systems

Why wearing a mask is the most important thing we can do to stop the spread of COVID-19

Women wearing face masks following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak chat on a street in Beijing, China August 11, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang - RC2PBI92KGP7

'Masks and face coverings can prevent the wearer from transmitting the COVID-19 virus to others and may provide some protection to the wearer.' Image: REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Rajeev Venkayya
President, Global Vaccine Business Unit, Takeda Pharmaceuticals International Inc.
Gabrielle Fitzgerald
Founder and CEO, Panorama, Co-Founder, Pandemic Action Network
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COVID-19

  • Messaging on the importance of wearing a mask during the pandemic has at times been confusing.
  • Universal mask use can significantly reduce virus transmission in communities.
  • Masks are not perfect barriers to transmission, and should be combined with other preventative measures such as social distancing and contact tracing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped life as we know it. Many of us are staying home, avoiding people on the street and changing daily habits, like going to school or work, in ways we never imagined.

While we are changing old behaviours, there are new routines we need to adopt. First and foremost is the habit of wearing a mask or face covering whenever we are in a public space.

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Based on our prior work in outbreaks of infectious diseases, we know that clear, consistent messages about what people can do to protect themselves and their community are critical. By that measure, the messaging on masks has been confusing.

Early in the pandemic, the general public was told not to wear masks. This was driven by the longstanding recognition that standard surgical masks (also called medical masks) are insufficient to protect the wearer from many respiratory pathogens, as well as the concern about diverting limited supplies from healthcare settings.

Science is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, and it inevitably changes the way we see the world. Thanks to the tireless efforts of scientists everywhere, we have compressed years of research on the COVID-19 virus into months. This has led to a rapid evolution of policies and recommendations, and not surprisingly some skepticism about the advice of experts.

These are some of the things we’ve learned:

  • Masks and face coverings can prevent the wearer from transmitting the COVID-19 virus to others and may provide some protection to the wearer. Multiple studies have shown that face coverings can contain droplets expelled from the wearer, which are responsible for the majority of transmission of the virus. This 'source control' approach reflects a shift in thinking from a 'medical' perspective (will it protect the wearer?) to a 'public health' perspective (will it help reduce community transmission and risk for everyone?).
  • Many people with COVID-19 are unaware they are carrying the virus. It is estimated that 40% of persons with COVID-19 are asymptomatic but potentially able to transmit the virus to others. In the absence widespread screening tests, we have no way of identifying many people who are silently transmitting the virus in their community.
  • Universal mask use can significantly reduce virus transmission in the community by preventing anyone, including those who are unwittingly carrying the virus, from transmitting it to others. Disease modeling suggests masks worn by significant portions of the population, coupled with other measures, could result in substantial reductions in case numbers and deaths.

Masks are not perfect barriers to transmission, but they don’t need to be perfect if they aren’t used alone. Universal mask use should be accompanied by other public health measures such as physical distancing, testing, contact tracing and restrictions on large gatherings. Those measures aren’t perfect either, but when many imperfect measures are combined at a community level, they can be very effective at slowing transmission and reducing infections.

Masks can also reduce the inequitable impact of the pandemic, particularly for those who live in crowded environments where physical distancing is difficult, and for those who work in frontline roles where there is a greater risk of exposure to the virus.

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Wearing a mask isn’t a restriction of our freedom. Rather, it helps us to regain freedom by reducing virus transmission in a community and making every interaction safer. Freedom for people to go to work, attend school, interact with others, and most importantly freedom from illness and fear.

The best solution for the pandemic is a safe and effective vaccine, and the biopharmaceutical industry is working closely with governments, regulators, the scientific community and non-governmental organizations to develop vaccines at unprecedented speed.

But vaccines are unlikely to be available to most of the world for some time, and we need a way to protect communities and keep society functioning in the meantime. In combination with other measures, universal mask use could help drive virus transmission down to levels we expect to achieve after vaccines become available.

While we live in a globalized world, it is rare that nearly everyone on the planet needs to adopt a common behaviour at the same time. In the words of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Board Chair of Gavi, “No one will be safe until everyone is safe. The time to act is now and the way to act is together.”

These are the reasons the Pandemic Action Network and partners around the world have come together around #WorldMaskWeek to inspire a global movement to #WearAMask. Join us for #WorldMaskWeek by posting a photo and sharing how you #WearAMask on your social media channels.

Our hope is that by creating a week where community, government, business, sports and entertainment leaders send the same message about this critical new behavior, everyone will understand the urgency of changing their behaviour and start wearing a mask, this week and every week.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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