Former Vice President Joe Biden made his first public appearance since mid-March yesterday with a Memorial Day wreath-laying near his home in Delaware. Biden and his wife, Jill, were formally dressed with matching black face masks for the occasion, prompting Fox News anchor Brit Hume to quip on Twitter, “This might help explain why Trump doesn’t like to wear a mask in public.”
The thing is, Biden didn’t look stupid as Hume implied. When I saw the pictures of him laying the wreath with his mask earlier in the day, I took it in stride, as most Americans probably did. A person wearing a mask might have drawn attention and stares three months ago but no longer.
If Republicans are declaring war on masks, as Hume and others seem to be doing, they may be making a strategic error. A Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project poll from last week found that 84 percent of Americans reported having worn a mask. That number included 81 percent of Republicans. Another recent poll, this one from Quinnipiac, found that voters thought that Trump should be wearing a mask in public by a two-to-one margin.
Studies with different findings and changing recommendations from health authorities contribute to the confusion about masks. Some of the confusion is deliberate. Several times yesterday, I saw people sharing a video of Dr. Fauci saying that masks were not necessary and alleging that the federal guidance on masks had changed again. In reality, the video was from a March 8 appearance on “60 Minutes.” A lot has changed since March 8 besides mask recommendations.
At this point, numerous studies have shown that masks reduce the spread of Coronavirus. While it is true that virus particles can go through many masks, that does not make them worthless as a defense against COVID-19. Studies have shown that even the much-maligned homemade cloth masks offer protection from disease transmission. Even cloth masks reduce the velocity of aerosol droplets emitted by coughing, sneezing, or talking and reduce the radius of viral transmission.
Critiques of masks fall into two main categories. First, critics note that masks don’t stop all virus particles. Second, they point out that masks can lead to reduced social distancing and more face-touching.
In aviation, we use the “Swiss-cheese” model for safety precautions. Any single precaution is likely to have flaws and holes, like a slice of Swiss cheese. The solution is to layer multiple safety strategies, several slices of cheese, to minimize the risk of an accident. The idea is to keep the holes from lining up.
In reducing disease transmission, the principle is the same. Masks are one slice of protection but not the only one. Social distancing, handwashing, and disinfecting surfaces make up additional lines of defense against the virus.
This helps to answer the meme question going around the internet of why masks are necessary if social distancing works and vice versa. It’s because neither is foolproof so using both techniques adds a level of safety. Masks are also necessary for reopening because not all stores have enough room for social distancing. Dr. Birx has said as much, stressing that social distancing is “absolutely critical” and that, if maintaining a six-foot distance is not possible, Americans “must wear a mask.”
We’ve made it clear that there’s asymptomatic spread, and that means that people are spreading the virus unknowingly,” Birx said on ABC’s “This Week.” “And this is unusual in the case of respiratory diseases in many cases.”
“You don’t know who’s infected. So we really want to be clear all the time that social distancing is absolutely critical,” she added.
If Americans want to reopen the economy without prompting a second wave of infections, then masks are a no-brainer. As to their effectiveness, just ask the doctors and nurses who wear masks for entire shifts to protect both themselves and their patients.
Americans will probably view Joe Biden’s mask as an indication of responsibility and maturity rather than a sign of weakness. Brit Hume’s denigration of the Democratic candidate following the advice of the CDC says more about Hume than it does Biden.
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