What I’m Grateful For This Thanksgiving: A Simple Face Mask Can Save Lives

As millions of Americans celebrate Thanksgiving this year amid a backdrop of persistently high and ever-increasing cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19, we are reminded once again of what’s at stake: lives — our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

The simplicity of wearing a face mask is a weapon in our arsenal that holds so much weight in preventing the transmission of the virus, SARS-CoV-2, and saving lives. It’s not a pharmaceutical drug with an arduous development process, nor is it a specialized piece of equipment like a ventilator, which requires 613 different parts to build and comes with a long supply chain component. By comparison, the face mask is, at its barest form, a multi-layered piece of cloth to cover one’s nose and mouth.

The verdict is out, and science proves it: Masks do indeed prevent not only the spread of SARS-CoV-2 by containing the wearers respiratory droplets when they talk, breath, sneeze, cough or sing; the mask also protects the wearer from inhaling others respiratory droplets. In fact, multi-layer cloth masks can block 50 to 80 percent of respiratory droplets and aerosols, which may contain microorganisms, such as the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The Achilles’ heel of this pandemic has been asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spread of SARS-CoV-2. More than 50 percent of COVID-19 transmissions is by individuals who exhibit no symptoms and are unaware of their infectiousness. This has been a key piece of information the scientific community learned over time as COVID19 ravaged through communities across the globe. Hence, the need for universal mask wearing.

Recent epidemiological trends on mask mandates go further to show the important role face masks play in reducing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in public spaces. In Kansas, a mask mandate in 24 counties decreased SARS-CoV-2 transmission by 6 percent of new cases per 100,000 population, compared to continued increase in 81 counties without mask mandates. Another study looking at mask mandates in 15 states and the District of Columbia before and after mask mandates revealed a decrease in daily COVID-19 growth rate, which became more apparent over time, and these mandates averted more than 200,000 COVID-19 cases between March 31 and May 22. In fact, the wearing of a face mask in public is so compelling that a projection showing if 95 percent of the population in each state wore a mask in public it could save nearly 130,000 lives through end of February 2021.

Each and every one of us plays a role in this pandemic. With such a relatively inexpensive, low-impact, but highly effective, intervention that can save thousands of lives, we are truly blessed to be able to easily make a difference in the trajectory of this pandemic.

By wearing a mask consistently and correctly in public settings or around non-household contacts, you are not only protecting yourself from potential infection, you are also protecting others’ should you unknowingly have contracted the virus.

To further decrease spread of SARS-CoV-2 and potentially contracting it, an additive or layered approach is most useful. No one single intervention is foolproof, including masks by themselves. But coupling mask wearing with keeping a safe distance, washing hands often, avoiding congregating in confined settings with poor ventilation, limiting time spent in crowds, and getting tested frequently can all help improve one’s safety and help curb community transmission.

Especially on today, I am so thankful we have these simple, everyday preventative tools.

Two women wearing protective face masks talk to each other in the deserted central pedestrian zone following the imposition of lockdown measures during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic on October 20, 2020 in Berchtesgaden, Germany. Photo by Lennart Preiss/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Dr. Syra Madad

Senior Director, System-wide Special Pathogens Program at New York City Health + Hospitals; core faculty in the National Emerging Special Pathogens Training and Education Center (NETEC); fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists and part of their COVID19 Expert Taskforce. Follow her on Twitter (@syramadad).