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When it comes to the United States’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, a common refrain among colleagues and friends is that we aren’t taking enough cues from South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong. The curve has been “flattened” in those places for a variety of reasons, one potentially being that face masks were already a part of their cultures. In many parts of Asia, it’s customary to wear a mask (and maybe gloves, too) on the train, at the supermarket, or just walking around the city, regardless of your health; it’s a daily precaution, one that’s equally about self-protection as it is about protecting others. Meanwhile in the U.S., you’d be fairly shocked to see someone wearing a surgical mask at your local Whole Foods. As I wrote last week, designers who are eager to help should make fabric masks for their customers and educate them about why “regular people” shouldn’t aggravate the medical supply shortage even more. If the CDC does change its recommendations and we see a surge in civilian demand for masks, that message will be even more crucial; the biggest argument against a nation-wide mask recommendation is that we might panic and start buying up those hard-to-get medical supplies at inflated rates, making the dire shortages even worse.
Even in the midst of a pandemic, the CDC has assured Americans for weeks that healthy citizens do not need to start wearing masks—first, because diligent hand-washing, social distancing, and staying home are widely considered the most effective ways to stop the spread, and second, because we need to reserve those medical supplies for healthcare workers. But as we prepare for the peak of COVID-19 diagnoses and our federal and local governments begin planning our eventual return to “regular life,” the CDC is apparently reconsidering its stance. In an NPR interview earlier this week, CDC director Robert Redfield said the agency is “aggressively reviewing” its data on masks worn by the general public. This comes after its discovery that potentially 25% of infected individuals are asymptomatic; the thinking seems to be that if you don’t know you’re sick but wear a mask anyway, your risk of inadvertently infecting others is lower. On Tuesday, President Trump essentially told Americans not to wait for further instructions and to start wearing a mask if they please—though, like the CDC, he warned that we should not buy N95s or surgical masks, which are already in dangerously short supply at hospitals. Instead, we should pick up bandanas or fabric masks, or simply make our own. Conventional fabrics like cotton will block liquid droplets and can provide incremental protection against airborne particles, as opposed to an N95, which, as the name suggests, blocks 95% of particles—precisely why a fabric mask is not suitable for a doctor or nurse treating COVID-19 patients.
But maybe that’s an alarmist concern; the people who were going to ignore the “rules” and order medical masks online probably already did it. Or they’re going to do it no matter what the CDC says. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina professor specializing in the social effects of technology, argued that the CDC’s original guidance—that the public doesn’t need masks and should reserve them for healthcare workers—may have started the problem in the first place by confusing people and inspiring them to do the exact opposite: “Unfortunately, the top-down conversation around masks has become a case study in how not to communicate with the public, especially now that the traditional gatekeepers like media and health authorities have much less control. The message became counterproductive and may have encouraged even more hoarding because it seemed as though authorities were shaping the message around managing the scarcity rather than confronting the reality of the situation.” She also wrote: “Research shows that during disasters, people can show strikingly altruistic behavior, but interventions by authorities can backfire if they fuel mistrust or treat the public as an adversary rather than people who will step up if treated with respect. Given that even homemade masks may work better than no masks, wearing them might be something to direct people to do while they stay at home more, as we all should.”
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