A slew of new studies confirm the effectiveness of face coverings against the coronavirus.
1. Masks protect other people The primary way the coronavirus spreads is from person to person by respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. Face masks, however, can block these droplets. They act as a barrier to keep virus-containing particles from escaping an infected individual and landing on another person, explains Ron Waldman, M.D., professor of global health at the George Washington University (GWU) Milken Institute School of Public Health.
A new simulation from researchers at Florida Atlantic University illustrates just how effective face coverings can be in reducing the number of droplets that are dispersed into the air and the distance they travel. Without a mask, droplets traveled more than 8 feet. A bandanna cut the distance to 3 feet, 7 inches, and a folded cotton handkerchief reduced that distance even more, to 1 foot, 3 inches, the researchers note.
2. You may not realize you are contagious It used to be that masks were recommended only for people who knew they had COVID-19, as a way to protect others around them. When it became apparent, however, that the virus can be transmitted by people before they start showing symptoms (pre-symptomatic) and by people who never develop symptoms (asymptomatic), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) broadened its guidelines, urging everyone to wear a cloth face covering in public.
Some studies, including a paper recently published in the journal Nature, have found that over 40 percent of people with coronavirus infections never develop symptoms of COVID-19. Th is makes it extremely difficult to detect who is a potential transmitter of virus, Waldman says.
That is why wearing a mask, even if you believe you are healthy, is recommended both by the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO). It’s one way to help prevent unknowingly spreading the virus to others, especially those who are more likely to become severely ill if infected by the coronavirus.
3. Masks can protect you, as well A few studies suggest cloth face masks offer some protection for the wearer, but the protective perks are most obvious when everyone covers the mouth and nose. Th ink of it as a collective benefit: The more people who block the transmission of the virus with face coverings, the less virus there is circulating in the community. Th is reduces everyone’s risk for infection.
“If that chain is cut anywhere, then the virus is no longer able to propagate or to be transmitted,” Waldman says. “So whether you intervene on the side of the transmitter or the side of the receiver of viral transmission, if you can block the passage of the virus on either end of that chain, then everyone benefits from that.”
A few studies highlight the power of widespread community use of face coverings. A report published in Health Affairs, for example, found that states with face mask mandates had a greater decline in daily COVID-19 growth rates compared with states that did not issue mandates. Th e authors estimate that these mask policies may have prevented as many as 450,000 coronavirus cases in the U.S.