As we head into the July 4 weekend, with COVID-19 cases rising across the country, health care providers like me are nervous about what the next few weeks could bring given what we now know about how COVID-19 spreads.
After stay-at-home orders successfully helped flatten the curve here in Washington, the dramatic rise in cases could again result in an increase of deaths among members of our community, especially those most vulnerable.
There is a simple and effective tool that can slow and eliminate the spread of COVID-19 — and that is wearing a facial covering or mask.
Many are understandably confused about the recommendation to wear a mask in public because initially, scientists and doctors told us that masks were optional. This is because there was little known about COVID-19 in February. Remember, this disease first appeared in humans in late 2019. Because not much was known about COVID-19 early on, scientists and doctors used their existing knowledge of infectious diseases, like the flu, and applied this to the initial response to COVID-19.
This resulted in the recommendation from the health care and scientific community that masking was not initially viewed as helpful in stopping the spread of COVID-19. The nature of human learning, and scientific discovery, results in changes and improvements to our recommendations and approach based on new information. Behind the scenes in labs and hospitals, scientists conducted research and learned new information about how COVID-19 spreads, which brings us to where we are now.
Masking is critical. Every time we speak, laugh, sing, cough, or sneeze, we release tiny droplets in the air. The newest research shows that COVID-19 is spread because these droplets, loaded with the virus in someone who is sick, can hang in the air we share, particularly indoors, for hours. Think about sunlight streaming in your window and noticing all the dust particles in the air — the dust is not always visible, but it’s there whether you can see it or not. Now apply this visual to someone infected with COVID-19 going about their daily life without a mask. Every time that person laughs, sings, or speaks, their droplets that contain the COVID-19 virus will hang in the air that others breathe in. This is challenging because many people do not exhibit symptoms during the first few days they are infected with COVID-19. If everyone wore a mask all the time, think about how many droplets containing the virus would be prevented from hanging in the air we share. And most importantly, how many infections and deaths would be prevented among our community and loved ones.
It’s simple — your mask protects others, and their masks protect you. Wearing a mask limits the droplets you produce from entering the surrounding air and being inhaled by others. Based on the current research, wearing a mask is the most effective — and easiest — tool we have to limit the spread of COVID-19 until there is a vaccine.
As a scientist and doctor, I strongly encourage you to wear your mask, especially indoors. Our health care workers, essential workers, and our economy depends on controlling, and eventually stopping, the virus from spreading. Wearing a mask is how you can contribute to this collective effort. I am confident that Washingtonians will again rise to the challenge, as we did in flattening the curve, and be an example to others across the country on what this simple act can do to stop the spread of COVID-19.