Now is the time for everyone to wear masks, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield and his colleagues wrote in an editorial published Tuesday in the journal JAMA.
While the organization has been slow to warm up to broad mask-wearing recommendations — first advising, but not requiring, healthy members of the general public on April 3 to cover their faces when out and about — Redfield and his colleagues now say mask wearing should be universal because "there is ample evidence" asymptomatic people may be what's keeping the pandemic alive.
"The data is clearly there that masking works," Redfield told Dr. Howard Bauchner, JAMA's editor in chief, during an interview Tuesday that corresponded with the editorial's release. "If we can get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really do think in the next four, six, eight weeks ... we can get this epidemic under control."
One model projects universal masking could save 45,000 lives by November
In the paper, Redfield, with his CDC colleagues Dr. John Brooks and Dr. Jay Butler, pointed to research demonstrating the effectiveness of masks.
One study of the largest healthcare system in Massachusetts showed how universal masking of healthcare workers and patients reversed the infection's trajectory among its employees.
They also pointed to the Missouri hairstylists who were infected with COVID-19 but did not infect any of their 140 clients, presumably because of the salon's universal masking policy.
A CDC report also released Tuesday detailed this case, concluding "consistent and correct use of face coverings, when appropriate, is an important tool for minimizing spread of SARS-CoV-2 from presymptomatic, asymptomatic, and symptomatic persons."
Meanwhile, a modeling program from the University of Washington projected universal masking could save 45,000 lives by November.
"Mask mandates delay the need for re-imposing closures of businesses and have huge economic benefits," Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation Director Dr. Christopher Murray said in a statement, MarketWatch reported. "Moreover, those who refuse masks are putting their lives, their families, their friends, and their communities at risk."
Not wearing a mask is like opting to undergo surgery by a team without face coverings
The JAMA paper also highlighted the two key reasons masking works: It protects both the wearer and the people they come in contact with.
While early recommendations focused on masking's benefit to those around you, Redfield and colleagues emphasized the benefit to the wearer as well.
They likened not wearing a mask with choosing to be operated on by a team without any face coverings — an "absurd" option because it's known the clinicians' conversations and breathing would generate microbes that could infect an open wound.
"Face coverings do the same in blocking transmission of SARS-CoV-2," the doctors wrote.
Proper social distancing and handwashing are equally important measures, though, when fighting the virus, Redfield told Bauchner.
People are coming around to mask wearing, but there's still resistance
More people are coming around to mask wearing, with a separate CDC report, also out Tuesday, showing the rates of mask wearing in public increased from 61.9% to 76.4% between April and May.
Redfield told Bauchner he was "heartened" to see President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence setting that example.
But there's still resistance, and the issue remains politicized — something Redfield and his coauthors hope their editorial will cut through.
"At this critical juncture when COVID-19 is resurging, broad adoption of cloth face coverings is a civic duty, a small sacrifice reliant on a highly effective low-tech solution that can help turn the tide favorably in national and global efforts against COVID-19," they wrote.