On the Use of Masks to Fight Covid-19

Date of update: 3/28/2020

"The big mistakes made in Europe and America is that people don't wear masks"
--Head of China's CDC

Yesterday, the New York Times printed an article entitled "More Americans Should Probably Wear Masks for Protection", in which medical experts have started to question whether mask use by healthy individuals and essential workers might help in the fight against covid-19.

The article cited a publication that appeared in 2008 in the British Journal of Medicine in which the use of masks in interrupting the transmission of SARS (also a coronavirus) had an effectiveness of 68%. Hence, the use of masks was even more effective than frequent handwashing (one of the current main strategies of the CDC and WHO). Frequent handwashing had an effectiveness of 55%. Even more impressive was that wearing an N95 mask had an effectiveness of 91%.

In a separate development, Gao Fu, who is head of of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in an interview with Science Magazine, bluntly said, "In my opinion, one of the big mistakes made in Europe and America is that people don't wear masks". Given the experience that the Chinese have had in dealing with coronaviruses and with covid-19 in particularly and that China is the only country in the world that has been successful in almost defeating the virus (only about 3000 active cases remain after dealing with 80,000 cases), we should value what the Chinese CDC says.
Date of update: 4/4/2020

Yesterday, the CDC announced a change in its recommendations: People are encouraged to wear cloth face covers.
Date of update: 6/2/2020

Two studies have been performed on the effectiveness of masks in the current situation: The first is a cohort study of cases in Beijing. The wearing of masks was found to reduce covid-19 transmission by a factor of 5!

The second article, entitled Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, is a systematic review and meta-analysis. It found that the use of masks reduces covid-19 transmission by more than a factor of 6! It also suggested the the use of N95 masks had a protective effect for the user.

The evidence is now compelling that people should be wearing masks when encountering others. It is one weapon in the arsenal (other major ones include social-distancing and frequent hand-washing) against covid-19.

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