Coronavirus Disease: New research says we can no longer justify not wearing a mask

Posted by

So it turns out the director of China’s CDC had it exactly right when he warned us that not wearing a face mask is a “big mistake.” That was back on March 27 when the US had about 86 000 cases and 1300 deaths. Now, nearly 4 months later the US leads the world with almost 4 million cases and 143 000 deaths: whopping 47 and 33-fold increases, respectively.

We don’t know how much suffering could have been avoided had we heeded China’s warning, but eye-opening research by the US CDC suggests it would have been a lot.

Two hair stylists in Springfield, Missouri, contracted the coronavirus and continued working for about a week because they didn’t know they were infected. During that time they saw 139 people between them for 15 to 45 minutes each; oftentimes their face was just inches away from their clients’ face.

Although the virus is transmitted between people by close contact, not a single person of the 139 contracted the virus. That’s because, the CDC tells us, both stylists and almost all of their clients wore face masks, in compliance with city and company policy. Commenting on the significance of their study, CDC Director Robert Redfield says:

We are not defenseless against COVID-19. Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.

But how do we know the masks were what prevented the spread? Six close contacts of the stylists outside of their salon were identified and 4 of them contracted the virus: the husband with whom one stylist lived; and their daughter, son-in-law, and their roommate, who lived together in another household.

So on those numbers, 2 out 3 people who come in close contact with an infected person contract the virus – which would’ve been just over 90 of the salon customers. And how many people would each of those 90 have infected, and so on? We’ll never know, but as The New York Times put it, it could have been a “disastrous outbreak.”

So while we dodged a bullet, the Springfield case contains an important nuance that could portend future disaster. The Times reports that at the time the stylists were working while infected, the numbers of coronavirus cases in Springfield were “extremely low . . . one or two a day” at the most.  

Compare that to now. As reported in yesterday’s Times, the CDC says the coronavirus infection rate is  more than 10-fold greater than we thought:

The number of people infected with the coronavirus in different parts of the United States was anywhere from two to 13 times higher than the reported rates for those regions, according to data released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The findings suggest that large numbers of people who did not have symptoms or did not seek medical care may have kept the virus circulating in their communities . . .

About 40 percent of infected people do not develop symptoms, but they may still pass the virus on to others.

Now the crucial part:

The results indicate that in vast swaths of the country, the coronavirus still has touched only a small fraction of the population.

That’s good news – the vast majority of us haven’t been infected.

But here’s the problem: It’s also good news for the virus — because that majority constitutes a vast opportunity for potential infections.

We even know how much of an opportunity. Looking back at the first paragraph, 47 and 33-fold increases over the past 4 months translates into some 188 million cases and 4.7 million deaths over the next 4 months – ending at US Thanksgiving.

And if we’re only half right, that’s what – 2 million deaths, and counting?

Masks, anyone?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *