Gee, with Covid-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and influenza cases on the rise, what would be a simple way to protect yourself and other people? How about that thing that rhymes with simple ask, meaning wear a face mask? Well, the hashtags #MaskUp and #BringBackMasks have been trending on Twitter with health professionals, scientists, and others urging everyone to wear face masks.
Why is there the need to once again urge people to wear face masks? After all, haven’t we been through this before? Don’t people already know the benefits of face masks? By mid-2020, it became apparent that the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) could spread via small respiratory droplets that could hang in the air and travel further than six feet or longer than a Harry Styles (who’s six feet tall). That prompted recommendations and in many places requirements to wear face masks to cut down SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Face masks became an essential layer of the Swiss cheese response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In this case, Swiss cheese didn’t mean throwing Swiss cheese at the virus, which would be delicious. Instead, it means making sure that you are simultaneously employing at least three Covid-19 precautions at all times. As each Covid-19 precaution has its holes, layering multiple precautions on top of each other will help cover each intervention’s deficiencies or holes. And you never want to go out in public with your holes fully exposed, right?
Scientific studies have suggested that face mask use has helped reduce the spread of not only the Covid-19 coronavirus but other respiratory viruses over the previous two Winters. Yet, in 2022, once political leaders stopped advocating for face mask use, perhaps after some politicians politicized the heck out of face masks, many people seemed to drop face masks as if they were shutter shades.
Therefore with the weather turning colder and drier—conditions that may facilitate the transmission of respiratory viruses—and practically no non-pharmaceutical Covid-19 precautions in place, it’s not surprising that the U.S. has been facing the prospect of a so-called triple-demic in the coming months. Indeed, upswings in Covid-19, the flu, and RSV infections have already been occurring. As of November 22, there was an average of 42,220 reported Covid-19 cases a day, a 7% increase over the past 14 days. The daily average of new Covid-19 hospitalizations has increased by 7% to 27,923 and Covid-19-related deaths by 3% to 319 over the past 14 days, according to data from the New York Times. The CDC Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report indicated that “Seasonal influenza activity is elevated across the country” as of the week ending on November 12, 2022. Meanwhile, there have been reports of RSV cases overwhelming a number of different children’s hospitals, as I recently reported for Forbes.
All of this has fueled spread of the hashtag #MaskUp. For example, Actress Morgan Fairchild, who has starred in a range of hit TV shows such as Flamingo Road and Falcon Crest, has included the hashtag in a bunch of recent tweets, including the following tweet accompanied by a photo of her and her sister Cathryn Hartt, also an actress and founder of the Hartt & Soul Acting Studio, both wearing face masks:
And Theo Moudakis, an editorial cartoonist for the Toronto Star, attached the hashtag to one of his cartoons:
Meanwhile, Lucky Tran, PhD, an organizer for the March for Science and a science communicator at Columbia University, used the #BringBackMasks hashtag to circulate a petition for New York State to re-instate face mask requirements on public transit:
Of course, two years of Covid-19 precautions may have left many people tired. But @dawnymock emphasized that the Covid-19 pandemic has been like a marathon and its important to persevere in a marathon:
Back in 2020, many experts did predict that the pandemic would last for about two-and-half to three years so the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic is still going on is not a big surprise. This could be the last Winter where vigilance and extra precautions are needed before the pandemic is finally over.
Besides in the grand scheme of things, face mask wearing is not that much of an ask. Asking someone to wear a face mask is not like asking them to wear a thumb tack thong. In fact, face mask wearing can bring other benefits, such as covering up other problems that may be just zitting there, as Camille Rondeau Saint-Jean tweeted:
Others on social media have wondered why the Biden Administration hasn’t done more to promote face mask use. For example, patient and health care advocate Robyn Ruth pointed out that Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH, White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator had described Covid as “purely airborne,” yet White House Chief of Staff Ronald Klain did not even mention face masks in his “To fight COVID” tweet:
You could say that was a “masked zinger,” so to speak.
And Gregg Gonsalves, PhD, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, referenced a CDC tweet that recommended people should cough into their upper shirt sleeves yet made no mention of face masks:
Umm, coughing and sneezing aren’t the only ways that you can spread the SARS-CoV-2 into the air. Unless you are going to glue your elbow over your nose and mouth, which, by the way, you shouldn’t do, the CDC advice in the tweet will not keep you from spreading the virus when you are doing things like breathing, talking, chanting, and singing that Sia song “Chandelier.” In fact, a number of people have wondered why politicians seem to be treating “mask” like a dirty word. For example, during a White House press briefing on November 22, a reporter asked Anthony Fauci, MD, “Masks and the word “masks” have become a pejorative in some parts of this nation. Can you talk about the importance of mask-wearing as you’re worried about the holidays and people gathering together?”
The science is clear. Face masks, especially well-constructed ones such as N95 respirators, can serve as barrier protections for your nose and mouth. To question their effectiveness and demand a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of face masks would be like demanding a RCT of curtains to see if they can block light or underwear to see if they can prevent your genitals from being seen. Which one would you rather have: someone who is infectious breathing out virus particles everywhere or having some type barrier to at least reduce the number of virus particles spewed into the air? Health professionals such as surgeons and nurses have worn face masks for years to protect patients. N95 face masks have already undergone years of testing and are designed specifically to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases. Those asking for more studies do not seem to be willing to face the facts.
Sure, wearing a face mask can be inconvenient. Sure, it can cover your beautiful, beautiful nose and your most wonderful mouth. Sure, you don’t want to deprive the world of seeing such marvelous body parts. But no real experts are saying that the need for face masks will continue forever. Plus, face mask wearing is not just a personal decision. Your decision in turn will affect all of those around you and beyond. As they say, mask what you can do for your country.