- Wearing a mask can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by catching the tiny droplets that are released when we speak, cough, or sneeze.
- New research indicates that wearing a mask may also encourage people to physically distance themselves.
- Unfortunately, many Americans object to wearing masks.
- Experts say it’s important to educate ourselves about the facts.
- They also say it’s important to be kind and considerate of the needs of others.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that wearing a mask can help us prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Masks help, according to Dr. Petros Levounis, MA, professor and chair of the department of psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and chief of service at University Hospital in Newark, because they keep the tiny droplets that are released when we speak, cough, or sneeze from escaping.
If the droplets can’t get out of the mask, then the virus contained within them can’t get out either.
However, masks may also provide another benefit beyond containing the virus. A new study indicates they might also make people more likely to physically distance themselves.
Physical distancing, also referred to as “social distancing,” is the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The CDC recommends that you maintain at least 6 feet (about two arms’ length) between yourself and others.
What the study found
Massimo Marchiori, PhD, professor of computer science at University of Padua in Padua, Italy, decided to take the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to study how people actually behave when it comes to physical distancing.
To measure how people physically distance themselves, he came up with the idea of using a “social distancing belt.”
The belt included a data card, rechargeable battery, and sensors to measure the nearness of other people.
Marchiori and some of his friends wore the belts around their waists as they walked through Venice and surrounding areas.
Altogether, the belts measured more than 12,000 encounters with other people.
What Marchiori found was quite dramatic.
When they weren’t wearing a mask, people tended to get quite close — sometimes within a foot away — when they passed by.
When they wore a mask, however, the distance maintained nearly doubled.
Wearing a mask sends a visual reminder to others to maintain distance
Marchiori says he believes that this effect occurred because people are inherently social beings.
Wearing a mask counters this tendency by sending a visual reminder of the risk that exists in closeness.
Suzanne Willard, PhD, APN-C, FAAN, associate dean for global health and clinical professor in the division of advanced nursing practice at Rutgers University School of Nursing, agrees.
“The premises make sense,” she said. “In our every day, we need reminders. A mask is one reminder that tells you to be cautious.”
If wearing a mask also encourages people to maintain physical distance, that’s a positive thing, in Willard’s opinion, because physical distancing has helped mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Wearing a mask and social distancing go hand in hand,” Levounis added.
“[I]f we mandate people to wear masks, more people will socially distance, which leads to less spread of the virus,” he said.
Debunking 6 common objections people use to explain why they refuse to wear masks
Aside from any theoretical benefits that wearing a mask might have, we know it’s an important part of stemming the spread of COVID-19.
Unfortunately, many Americans have been resistant to complying.
Healthline asked Levounis and Willard to respond to some common reasons given for not wearing a mask.
1. ‘Masks aren’t effective in preventing the spread of the virus’
Levounis says it’s true that masks won’t protect you 100 percent.
However, they do give you some protection and, more importantly, they prevent you from spreading the virus to someone else.
Willard further points out that the greatest shedding of the virus occurs when we’re not yet having symptoms.
Wearing a mask will help us prevent spreading the virus to others during the period when we might not yet be aware that we have an infection.
2. ‘They’re too uncomfortable’
Willard was quick to point out that, yes, masks are often uncomfortable — but so is getting sick.
Also, you, or someone you come into contact with, could potentially die.
To deal with glasses fogging up, Willard recommends putting some detergent on them to make them anti-fog like you would a snorkel. You could also make sure the mask is under your glasses, she says.
Willard further suggests making ear loops looser, or using devices like a headband to keep them off your ears.
If possible, you can also limit the time that you do need to wear one by avoiding places where you’re in close contact with other people.
Finally, there are masks that tie behind your head and neck rather than going over the ears, she says.
3. ‘They’re hard to breathe through, and I’m worried about carbon dioxide buildup’
Both Levounis and Willard say that, while masks can be hard to breathe through, we shouldn’t be worried about carbon dioxide building up.
“Limit the time you are wearing it,” Willard said.
“And they do allow air to come in and carbon dioxide to escape,” she added.
4. ‘I think people who are vulnerable should just stay home so the rest of us who are healthy can live our lives’
“All of us should try as much as we can to be mindful of other people’s situations and must be considerate,” Levounis said.
“Not everyone has the resources to stay at home throughout this period. People need to empathize and not judge,” he said.
Willard adds that she finds comments like these to be “selfish and probably ageist.”
“We need to be kind to one another,” she said.
5. ‘I should be free to do what I want’
“The U.S. has made it a recommendation to wear masks because we are a country that takes our individual freedoms seriously,” Levounis said, “but in other places it is law because of how serious the virus is.”
“If we do mandate helmets for cyclists to save lives, then we need to mandate masks to save lives during this pandemic too,” he said.
6. ‘I think this is a conspiracy to make Trump look bad’
“It is definitely not,” Levounis said. “The virus killing people is very real.”
Willard added, “People are dying and are sick. People are not intentionally getting this virus.”
She suggests that people should get the facts from credible sources, learn about epidemics and data, and form their own conclusions.
“Anytime there is something we cannot control or understand, we think it is a conspiracy. This is not,” Willard said.
The bottom line
Wearing a mask helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 by containing the droplets that are released during speaking, coughing, and sneezing.
New research suggests that an added benefit of wearing a face mask may be that it encourages people to physically distance themselves.
Unfortunately, many Americans have been resistant to wearing masks, despite the benefits.
Experts say it’s important to educate ourselves about the facts so we can draw our own conclusions.
It’s also important to be kind and considerate of the needs of others.