The common story on COVID-19 has become very, very centered around the idea that everyone just needs to park in place until a vaccine comes along to save us. But with poll after poll showing that people are unwilling to accept a vaccine rushed into production under Donald Trump, that’s simply not going to happen anytime soon. And barring some ill-considered use of emergency authorization, a vaccine is still months away in any case. But as CDC director Robert Redfield testified at a Senate hearing on Wednesday morning, there is already a solution available that can reduce the spread of COVID-19 and allow the nation to bring the number of cases down to a level where life can return to a fair semblance of normality. It’s called masks.
As Daily Kos reported back in June, reaching herd immunity by waiting for people to become infected—as Donald Trump suggested again on Tuesday evening—would absolutely overwhelm America’s healthcare system and result in the death of millions on top of the 200,000 who have already died unnecessarily. However, if more than 80% of Americans wore masks in their interactions outside the home, “the United States could achieve effective immunity almost overnight.” Since then, additional studies have shown that masks can be even more effective when the proper kind of masks are worn in the correct way. A national mask mandate could reduce the transmission of COVID-19 better than the release of a vaccine and it can do so immediately. In fact, even in the best circumstances, it would take many months for a vaccine to achieve the results that an enforced mask mandate could manage in just a few weeks.
And it’s not like there’s going to be a quick alternative in any case, because at the same hearing, Redfield testified that a vaccine is unlikely to be available to the general public until “late” in 2021.
Here’s Redfield on Wednesday morning.
- Multiple surveys have demonstrated that Americans do not trust Trump to deliver a safe and effective vaccine. As a result, the percentage of people likely to take a vaccine over the first few months is likely to be low—far too low to provide general protection, and likely too low to reduce the transmission of the virus to the point where the pandemic cannot be maintained.
- As Redfield points out, a vaccine is likely to be far from 100% effective. In fact, the FDA has suggested that it will approve vaccines with an effective rate as low as 50%, making the vaccine literally more of a gamble than wearing a mask.
- Even if a safe, highly effective vaccine becomes available, it will take a period of months for this vaccine to be delivered first to front-line workers, then to high-risk candidates, then to the general public. This is true even if a vaccine were to be released using an Emergency Use Authorization. Vaccines alone are unlikely to be common enough across the community to halt the spread of COVID-19 until months after they first become available.
- Masks are cheap, available, and work instantly. A good multi-layer mask helps protects the wearer as well as others they encounter. Mask wearing is likely a primary factor in explaining why nations like Japan—which did everything wrong in terms of testing and case management—have a rate of deaths 55 times lower than in the U.S.
- Unlike vaccines, masks do not generate even a small risk of adverse reactions. Flu vaccines may have a one in a million chance at a serious reaction; masks don’t. Everything you’ve heard about masks reducing oxygen is bullshit. So is the idea that masks “amplify” someone’s own virus. That cannot happen. Masks are all benefit with very little downside. If you are exercising vigorously in isolated circumstances—take off your mask—then put them back on.
None of this means that we still don’t need a nationwide system of testing and case-tracing. But it means that we can, with masks, reduce the number of cases to the point where testing and isolation can drive down the number of new cases to a few hundred per day. COVID-19 can be a genuinely rare disease affecting a few, instead of something that is looking to double the death count before year’s end.
If a national mask mandate had happened back in the spring when the benefits of using masks to fight COVID-19 became clear, we would already be back to a more or less normal life. Kids would be in school with little controversy, athletes would be playing with low risks, the economy would be genuinely recovering. That didn’t happen.
The best time to put a mask mandate in place was as soon as we understood the value of wearing masks. The second best time is now. Right now. This isn’t technically difficult or logistically challenging. It doesn’t require shutting down anything or calling out the National Guard.
Here’s what the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services had to say about mask wearing:
“For each week of the outbreak without masks, a 38.5% increase in per-capita mortality occurred. Mortality decreased by 4.6% for every week the country wore masks.”
Every day that Trump fails to institute a national mask mandate, he is consigning thousands more Americans to death. We need a national mask mandate. Right now.