“We know the vaccines authorized in the US are extremely effective and safe — but not perfect — at preventing Covid-19 illness. Newer data suggests they are also very good (though also not perfect) at keeping people from getting infected, thus likely drastically reducing the chances they could spread it to others.
Even with the small risks of these “breakthrough infections,” there are much more pressing reasons to keep masking in public — especially indoors in places like gyms, stores, and airports — and, according to the new CDC guidance, in most outdoor gatherings as well. Masking remains one of the least intrusive interventions we can take to keep putting the brakes on Covid-19 spread.
From variant wild cards to protecting unvaccinated kids, the reasons we should keep masking in crowded public spaces at least into the summer are strong. We talked to experts to better understand them and to get a glimpse of when we might finally be able to leave our masks at home.”
“The majority of people in the US are still susceptible to infection from Covid-19. “There are folks around us who will not or cannot get the vaccine, and we have to keep thinking, as a community, of ways to protect them, too,””
“a subset of people — roughly 3 percent in the US — have compromised immune systems that might do a poor job of mounting a robust response to the vaccine, leaving them vulnerable to infection even after getting shots.
There are also some people who aren’t able to wear masks to protect themselves in public. This includes some adults and children with disabilities or rare health conditions, as well as babies and toddlers”
“Although the vaccines authorized for use in the US appear to be very effective against the variants that are circulating, it is possible future strains will be better at evading vaccine protection (as the B.1.351 variant, first detected in South Africa, is against the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine). Vaccine companies are working to keep pace with variants, testing their vaccines against them and formulating potential boosters. But, says Guthrie, “it may be a bit of a game of whack-a-mole as new variants come up.””
““These variants — especially ones that have mutations that make them more transmissible — can pop up and then spread quite quickly,” Guthrie says. “If you combine that with a variant that could evade the current vaccines, you’re not going to get a lot of advance warning.” Which means a widespread outbreak, including some people who had already gotten their shots, could get going before we were able to contain it.
Masking can not only prevent a new variant from spreading but could also help prevent new variants from emerging, as the more people the virus infects, the greater the opportunity it has to mutate.”
“Even if we can’t drop our masks indoors for a little while longer, outdoors is a different story. The rates of public outdoor transmission of Covid-19 are incredibly low, and most known cases of outdoor infection spread have occurred from long conversations, yelling, or exercising together.”
“There are varying schools of thought about whether the president has the authority to issue a national mask mandate, as many other countries have. Some attempts to do so at the state and local level have been met with lawsuits and refusals to comply, as masks have become an increasingly politicized and contentious issue. Biden has said he will issue an executive order requiring masks to be worn on federal property.
Beyond that, Biden’s version of a national mask mandate, as spelled out in his new transition website, does not appear to come from him. Instead, he’s going to be “working with governors and mayors” to encourage them to issue their own mandates, as well as remind Americans to wear masks. While the majority of America’s governors have issued statewide mandates, 16 states have not — including Mississippi, which revoked its mask mandate in October (Gov. Tate Reeves is requiring masks in certain counties).
Though it’s hard to see a reality where states and localities run by Republicans work hand in hand with a Democratic president these days — even in the face of a virus that infects people regardless of their political leanings — many firmly Republican state governments have issued mask mandates once their constituents began getting sick and dying, most recently Utah on Monday. Others still seem to take pride in their obstinance, like South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. Even in that state, however, local governments are trying to issue their own orders.”
“On Monday, we learned White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tested positive for the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. McEnany — and others in the White House cluster — failed to follow public health guidelines and quarantine, though she had been exposed to colleagues confirmed to have Covid-19.
She also briefed reporters twice — on Friday and Sunday — without wearing a mask, putting them at risk of the virus.
McEnany joins a list of at least 20 people in the White House cluster — including two of McEnany’s aides, White House staff, journalists, Congress members, and others — who’ve tested positive after Trump and first lady Melania Trump announced they tested positive on Friday. White House aide Hope Hicks, who had traveled with the president earlier in the week, also tested positive and was reportedly experiencing symptoms Wednesday.”
“the president and his staff’s failure to consistently wear a face mask while in close contact with colleagues and reporters in the White House and in public settings — the guidance of his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — put them at higher risk for infection and of spreading the virus to others, since asymptomatic people can transmit the virus.”
“Poll after poll, most recently a Gallup poll from July 13, has found American men are more likely to not wear masks compared to women. Specifically, the survey found that 34 percent of men compared to 54 percent of women responded they “always” wore a mask when outside their home and that 20 percent of men said they “never” wore a mask outside their home (compared to just 8 percent of women).”
“Glick and Reny echoed a sentiment that health experts I spoke to in July said: To get people to change behavior, masks have to become a socially accepted norm. Once people start accepting masks as normal behavior, like they do wearing seat belts and not smoking indoors, the number of people going against the norm decreases.
Getting to that tipping point is a lot easier said than done.”
“One could make a libertarian case for government mask mandates during a pandemic, on the grounds that no one has an inherent right to cough deadly pathogens on another person. But that theoretical case has to be weighed against the reality of policing in America, where cops frequently resort to petty and overaggressive enforcement.”
“An ongoing problem with PPE is that supplies still aren’t being distributed equally around the country and even within hot spots. Better-resourced hospitals have more supplies while other facilities struggle to find enough.
The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid say that one in five Florida nursing homes do not have a one-week supply of gowns or the N95 masks needed to care for Covid-19 patients and prevent transmission. According to WCNC Charlotte, North Carolina ran perilously low on gowns and masks in May even before its recent surge in cases, receiving only 99,000 of the 27 million N95 masks it had ordered. An internal report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) suggests “[t]he demand for gowns outpaces current U.S. manufacturing capabilities” and that the government plans to continue to ask medical staff to reuse N95 masks and surgical gowns intended to be disposed of after one use into July.”
“It’s not only hospitals that need more staff and PPE; many other areas of health care do too, including primary care facilities, homes for the disabled, and nursing homes — a fifth of which reported at the end of May that they had less than a week’s supply of critical PPE.”
“The US has conducted about 72 tests per 1,000 people, according to Our World In Data. That’s a lower rate than Portugal or Russia or Iceland and about the same as Australia and Italy. Good but hardly warranting “greatest of all time” designations. The number of tests in the US that are coming back positive also suggests we are still not adequately surveilling Covid-19 compared to European countries.”
“When you conduct more tests, you would expect the positive test rate to go down, because along with some more positive tests, you would get many more negative ones. So experts are concerned because in states like Arizona and Florida and Texas, the positive test rate is actually increasing. That is what suggests increased spread of Covid-19 is behind some of rising case numbers — not simply more tests being conducted.”
“New York City, with a population of about 8.4 million, has had over 28,000 coronavirus deaths as of May 18. Meanwhile, Hong Kong has officially recorded only four Covid-19 deaths, despite having 7.5 million residents.
One reason that could help explain the stark disparity: In Hong Kong, nearly everyone wears a face mask in public.
If any city in the world was likely to experience the worst effects of the coronavirus, Hong Kong would have been a top candidate. The urban area is densely populated and heavily reliant on packed public-transit systems, and it has very few open spaces. Moreover, a high-speed train connects Hong Kong to Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus originated.
Hong Kong, it seemed, was doomed.
But almost as soon as the outbreak first began in the city, millions of residents started wearing masks in public. One local told the Los Angeles Times that the government didn’t have to say anything before 99 percent of the population put them on.
Experts now say widespread mask usage appears to be a major reason, perhaps even the primary one, why the city hasn’t been devastated by the disease.
“If not for universal masking once we depart from our home every day, plus hand hygiene, Hong Kong would be like Italy long ago,” K.Y. Yuen, a Hong Kong microbiologist advising the government, told the Wall Street Journal last month.”
“Starting last spring, pro-democracy activists took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest a set of laws that would give mainland China — which isn’t supposed to have full control over the city until 2047 — more power over Hong Kong. To protect themselves from police tear gas and avoid the city-state’s ubiquitous surveillance cameras, millions of protesters donned masks.
In an effort to quash the movement last October, Hong Kong’s China-backed government banned the wearing of face masks in public. The hope was that forcing demonstrators to show their faces would make them stay home instead.
Just a few months later, the coronavirus happened.
As the coronavirus first hit the city, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam fumbled her response, not wearing a mask during a press conference and, eventually, wearing one incorrectly in public. She also asked government employees not to wear masks.
By April, public health experts in Hong Kong were calling on the government to not only repeal the mask ban but also to mandate the wearing of masks in public as a means of curbing the coronavirus’s spread.
But by then, almost everyone was already wearing them, ban be damned. Indeed, the fact that the government seemed to advocate against masks may have helped make them more popular. Almost in protest, residents started wearing masks in large numbers and helping the most vulnerable communities obtain them.”
“The city has faced pandemics before, including the 1968 flu, which began in Hong Kong and killed about 1 million people worldwide. When SARS came to Hong Kong from mainland China in 2003, residents took it seriously and nearly everyone wore a mask. Partly as a result, the city lost only 300 people during that crisis.
Experts say that instilled a sense among the people of Hong Kong that masks are vital to thwarting a pandemic. That sense was reignited when the coronavirus hit. Now they’re everywhere.”
“Despite Hong Kong’s mask ban officially remaining in place, some of the government’s health officials now praise the citizenry for organically putting the coverings on without being told to do so.”
“It’s worth noting that Hong Kong also implemented a strong testing, tracing, and isolation program, in addition to strengthening travel rules and closing bars at the end of March. Those moves, perhaps just as much as masks, have helped keep Hong Kong’s coronavirus death toll low.
But the masks, research shows, are still very important.”
“Certified N95 respirators are special. Unlike a conventional surgical mask, N95 masks are built so that 95 percent of very small airborne particles can’t get through. These masks also need to be approved by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and, depending on the type, the Food and Drug Administration. In order to fulfill those requirements, N95 masks must be constructed so that they seal tightly around one’s mouth and nose, unlike surgical or cloth masks which are loose-fitting.
The United States is now confronted with a shortage of N95 masks for a number of reasons. The masks themselves are difficult to make, in part because they require specialized equipment to meet stringent regulatory standards. Many of the companies that can make the masks are also in China. That supply chain wasn’t prepared for a pandemic, especially one that originated in the same country where many of these masks are produced. And as the novel coronavirus spread throughout China, the country’s government bought its domestically produced masks, ensuring they weren’t exported. That’s made the gap between supply and demand in the US much larger.
In the absence of a pandemic, the US has typically not produced enough of these N95 masks to meet the needs of its own workers. Prestige Ameritech and 3M are the two primary companies that do end-to-end production of medical-grade N95 masks in the US, and both are both ramping up production. Another American company, Honeywell, recently started producing N95 masks at its Rhode Island and Phoenix facilities. Still, these three companies won’t solve our mask shortage.”
“America is suffering from a shortage of almost everything it needs to combat the spread of COVID-19. Hospital beds, ventilators, gloves, and gowns are all in short supply.
That’s particularly true of the N95 masks that help medical professionals avoid catching and spreading the virus as they tend to patients. The N95 designation refers to the ability of these masks to filter out 95 percent of airborne particles.
In early March, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said that the country’s stockpile of N95 masks was enough to meet about 1 percent of the three billion masks we would need during a true pandemic.”
“government regulations are stifling the ability of manufacturers to set up new N95 mask production facilities—handicapping the private sector’s ability to respond to the current crisis.”
“The production of N95 masks is regulated by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Prospective makers of N95 masks must submit detailed written applications to NOISH, and send finished products to its Personal Protective Technology Laboratory for testing. NIOSH staff must also personally inspect new manufacturing sites before they’re allowed to start pumping out masks.
Chisholm says regulators have told the Open PPE Project that getting agency approval could take anywhere from 45 to 90 days.”
“3M, one of the largest makers of N95 masks, says that it is producing 35 million respirators per month in the U.S. and that within 12 months it plans to double global production capacity to 2 billion masks a year. It also says it is exploring coalitions with other companies to expand mask production further.
Honeywell, another major mask manufacturer, claims it has more than doubled its mask production, according to The New York Times.
That’s a lot of masks, but nowhere near enough to meet the current demands of the country’s medical sector, let alone the demands of other essential workers and volunteers who are out in public right now, potentially dealing with sick people.”