Maskless shopper sparks panic
How much of a help are masks in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic? Absolutely essential, it seems, to New Yorkers. One woman without a mask sparked hysteria in a Staten Island supermarket. Other shoppers started shrieking “get out” (and other less delicate words). Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered people to wear masks in public when they are unable to follow social distancing guidelines.
Never been prouder of growing up in Staten Island. https://t.co/QYgBjgr5Sr
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) May 25, 2020
But do we need masks? Do they really stop transmission of the virus?
An article in a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine says No – at least for the public.
We know that wearing a mask outside health care facilities offers little, if any, protection from infection. Public health authorities define a significant exposure to Covid-19 as face-to-face contact within 6 feet with a patient with symptomatic Covid-19 that is sustained for at least a few minutes (and some say more than 10 minutes or even 30 minutes). The chance of catching Covid-19 from a passing interaction in a public space is therefore minimal.
And they add – as the Staten Island incident proved: “In many cases, the desire for widespread masking is a reflexive reaction to anxiety over the pandemic.”
They point out that masking could even be counter-productive on a mass scale “if it diverts attention from implementing more fundamental infection-control measures”.
Perhaps masks are less a health measure than a symbol of social solidarity – a bit like wearing a burka.
… masks serve symbolic roles. Masks are not only tools, they are also talismans that may help increase health care workers’ perceived sense of safety, well-being, and trust in their hospitals. Although such reactions may not be strictly logical, we are all subject to fear and anxiety, especially during times of crisis. One might argue that fear and anxiety are better countered with data and education than with a marginally beneficial mask, particularly in light of the worldwide mask shortage, but it is difficult to get clinicians to hear this message in the heat of the current crisis.
Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge
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