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Very few people enjoy wearing a face mask; they can be uncomfortable, restrictive, and even anxiety-causing. This all leads to the questions, over a year on from the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, are masks worth it, and are masks working? However, it seems that most of the world has embraced the practice of mask-wearing to prevent the spread of Covid-19 during the world coronavirus pandemic. While it took time for evidence to become available and governments to recommend the wearing of face masks, many are now enforcing the wearing of face masks in public areas where social distancing is difficult. Shops and other public places are requesting that customers mask up before entering, while many of those in the hospitality industry and other public-facing roles have been mandated to wear masks while working. What is the evidence to suggest that masks are a good idea? Are masks working to prevent the spread of the virus?

 

Are Masks Working?

Are masks working to stop the spread of virus containing droplets

The Science – The general consensus in the scientific community is overwhelmingly positive on mask-wearing. Provided that masks are used correctly, they do reduce the spread of aerosols from the nose and mouth of the wearer. This cuts down the amount of potentially virus-containing droplets that enter the space around a person. It means significantly fewer of these droplets in the air and fewer landing on surfaces. It’s a relatively simple hypothesis, and it has proven to be correct when scientists have examined the evidence through experimentation and when tracking the spread of the virus. 

The Evidence – One way that scientists check out the efficiency of masks is by comparing high-speed video footage of coughs and sneezes from a person not wearing a face covering with footage of coughs and sneezes while wearing a face mask. This is one of the most effective ways to provide evidence to support mask-wearing and answering the question ‘are masks working well enough to make them worthwhile?’ This video footage shows a dramatic decrease in the spread of aerosols and droplets from the person coughing or sneezing and even breathing.

 

Facemasks and Other Respiratory Viruses

Crowd wearing face masks as some countries have done for a while for normal viruses

Respiratory viruses are not new, and most of us have experienced colds and flu before. Mask wearing is also not new. While the widespread wearing of face coverings might be a very recent phenomenon, it is quite common in some countries to wear facemasks to protect against the effects of pollution or the risk of picking up respiratory illnesses. Studies into the practice of wearing a surgical mask when suffering from a cold or flu have previously shown that the face mask massively reduced the number of virus-laden droplets.

 

Are Masks Working – Comparing States

Kentucky state flag and a face covering mask

In the USA, there have been many differences in how different states responded to the global pandemic. This afforded scientists an opportunity to compare the effect that different measures such as facemasks might have had on the virus. While it is difficult to isolate the effect that face masks might have had on the numbers of people catching and spreading Covid-19, it did provide a very clear answer to the familiar question ‘are masks working?’ The study compared the states which mandated the use of face coverings with those that didn’t and concluded, “The study provides evidence that US states mandating the use of face masks in public had a greater decline in daily COVID-19 growth rates after issuing these mandates compared with states that did not issue mandates.

 

Masks, Health & Economic Recovery

Econimical crisis concept due to coronavirus COVID-19 spread in the world

While the evidence shows that masks help reduce the spread of Covid-19, this is good news for our health. It means something we can do on an individual level to potentially slow down the spread of the virus and protect everyone around us. This translates into many other benefits for society, the main one being the ability to open up industries that have been shut down. The wearing of face masks may enable economic activity to resume more quickly than it would otherwise safely. In an evidence-based review of the efficacy of facemasks against Covid-19, the authors concluded, “Our review of the literature offers evidence in favor of widespread mask use as source control to reduce community transmission… The available evidence suggests that near-universal adoption of nonmedical masks when out in public, in combination with complementary public health measures, could successfully reduce Re to below 1, thereby reducing community spread if such measures are sustained. Economic analysis suggests that mask-wearing mandates could add 1 trillion dollars to the US GDP.”

 

Are Masks Working for Everyone?

The correct way to wear a face mask to protect yourself and others

There are limitations in the efficacy of masks. Masks are certainly not a magic solution for Covid-19 spread. To get the best result, people have to be wearing the mask correctly. This means covering the mouth and nose with no gaps at the sides. It also means putting on and taking off the mask correctly (with clean hands and taking care where the mask is touched). The type of mask also matters; surgical masks perform better in reducing droplet and aerosol spread, while fabric masks are less effective (but still better than nothing!). It is also important that single-use masks are not reused, and that multi-use masks are cared for correctly.

There are also limitations on who can safely wear a face mask. There is a very small minority of people who cannot wear a face covering for health reasons. This might be due to a breathing condition or, in some cases, due to the mental distress that wearing a mask might place on them. Victims of past trauma, those with mental health difficulties, and those who suffer from extreme anxiety may experience mental distress that outweighs the benefits of wearing a mask. For these groups of people, it is important to put extra effort into social distancing and avoiding activities or places where the risks are higher, for example, places with high human traffic.