April 3, 2020 — The CDC and White House have been mulling for days whether they should recommend that everyone wear cloth masks when going out in public.
Now a team of researchers at Yale University has weighed in. They looked at the growth of COVID-19 cases and deaths in countries where it is common for people to wear masks, such as South Korea and Japan, and compared those rates to countries where wearing masks is not the norm, such as Italy.
The results were striking. Masks cut the growth rate in both cases in deaths by as much as 10%. That was above and beyond the impact of other policies like closings schools and workplaces and issuing stay-at-home orders. The economic benefit was estimated to be $3,000-$6,000 for every additional mask worn in public, due to their slowing the spread of the virus. That’s a conservative estimate because it doesn’t take into account the financial benefits of getting the country back to work faster.
The researchers write that their findings make this a no-brainer: “We find that this policy could have very large benefits, but that it should be coupled with policies that protect and increase the availability of medical masks for frontline healthcare workers,” such as invoking the Defense Production Act to spur the production of medical masks.
President Donald Trump and his advisors discussed facial masks as a way to curb the spread of the coronavirus on Thursday at the daily White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing, but stopped short of calling for all Americans to wear them in public.
Trump said Americans could go ahead and wear coverings like scarves or bandanas — if they want to.
“A recommendation is coming out, but I’ll say this: They [Americans] can pretty much decide for themselves.”
Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, chair of the Infectious Disease Division at Massachusetts General Hospital, said in a press briefing hosted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America on Friday that it’s important people understand that wearing a mask doesn’t get you out of social distancing.
“The mask would be in addition. If you are going to do an essential activity — go get your prescriptions from the drugstore — then in that case one would put on a mask,” she said.
“I also want to remind people, masks are acts of altruism. You are not protecting yourself by wearing a mask from someone else. You are protecting someone else from something you might transmit to them, asymptomatically and unknowingly,” she said.
Health officials have been holding off on making an official recommendation that everyone wear masks in public for fear of wiping out the already dwindling supply of disposable masks available to health care workers.
The Yale team says that’s why any policy adopted nationally needs to stress the use of cloth masks — either bandanas or homemade masks by the general public.
Walensky stressed that point, too.
“I would urge people when they’re putting on the mask to make sure that it’s one that’s the kind that’s made at home, maybe a handkerchief or bandana, that wouldn’t detract from the critical PPE that’s needed in the hospital,” she said.