It may be an election year, but one of the hottest debates of 2020 isn’t based on political parties, but rather, whether or not to wear a face mask.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, masks have become a major part of the new normal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, masks are crucial for slowing or even preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Our coughs and sneezes spray thousands of droplets into the air, and those droplets can carry bacteria and diseases, including the coronavirus. But certainty around whether or not we should be wearing face masks has been consistently up for public debate.
NBC News investigative and consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen conducted an experiment to see just how effective face masks really are in limiting the spread of germs.
To conduct the experiment, Nguyen coughed onto petri dishes wearing three different types of face masks (cloth mask, a common surgical mask and an N95 mask). She also coughed onto a petri dish wearing no mask.
After 60 hours, all three of the petri dishes Nguyen coughed onto while wearing a mask showed no sign of bacteria growth, while the dish she coughed on with no face covering had significant bacteria growth.
It’s important to note that the experiment cannot track the spread of a virus, because a virus is transmitted between living organisms (it will not survive on a petri dish). But in the debate as to whether or not wearing a mask does in fact create a protective layer between your mouth and the air someone else receives, well Nguyen’s results speak for themselves. You can watch her full experiment here.
From the start of the pandemic, the CDC has sent mixed messages around masks. It started by telling people not to wear masks to preserve PPE. But now, three months later, people in many states are required to wear a mask while out in public. The CDC has said that wearing a mask is crucial for the safety of others.
Because the coronavirus is being rapidly spread by people–many of which are asymptomatic–it is said that wearing a mask is supposed to limit the spread of the virus from a carrier (knowing or not) to someone else.
The CDC has recently been conducting a scientific review about the public health benefits of masks, and will soon make an updated recommendation as to whether masks are not only a “good for source control — and keeping you from giving it to others — but we’re also seeing if masks are going to protect you from getting [Covid-19] yourself,” said a CDC senior official.
“We know it’s a good thing to wear a mask to protect others. We are studying if it is also potentially going to keep you safe,” the official added.
In a first-of-its-kind study, published last month by The Lancet, researchers took a comprehensive look at measures used to slow the spread of this pandemic, as well as other past coronaviruses, including SARS and MERS. They analyzed 172 studies from 16 countries and six continents.
By studying past outbreaks, the research provides evidence-based clarity that we don’t currently have for COVID-19.
The study, which looked into the use of face masks, social distancing, and eye protection, found that, without a mask, social distancing or any other preventive measures, the risk of transmitting the coronavirus is 17.4%. By wearing a mask or respirator, that number drops to 3.1%.
With less than a meter (just over three feet) of distance and no other protective measures, the research found the risk of transmission was 12.8%. With more than 1 meter of distance, it’s 2.6%.
The bottom line? Wearing a mask, in any circumstance where a virus is present, is scientifically proven to decrease transmission.
That being said, there’s also an element of humanity to all of this, to which I say: If you could prevent one person from contracting the virus by wearing a mask, isn’t it worth it? Ultimately, wearing any sort of face covering for a comfortable amount of time can’t hurt you in any way, but it could legitimately help someone else. And isn’t that what being human is all about?
These are difficult times. Let’s look out for one another, take care of each other, and not let the human race become any more divided than it already is—over a piece of fabric.