Why I wear a mask

I have a confession to make: I hate wearing a face mask. I’ve yet to find a comfortable one. Some are too tight, and some are too loose. Some require too much fiddling to get right. They all fog up my glasses and make it hard to speak and be understood.

But I’ve been wearing one whenever I go out in public for more than a month now.

Lately, I’ve noticed the more I wear one, the less irksome it seems.

Humans have a remarkable capacity to adapt to new ways of doing things.

Lots of things in life are uncomfortable. But if we are motivated to accomplish something that involves some discomfort, we generally do so. The current state of affairs concerning the coronavirus pandemic is no exception.

I have a friend whose family business is reopening soon. She is excited about the reopening, but apprehensive about the risks to her health and that of her family. They are taking as many precautions as they can, including requiring all employees to wear masks, but they are stopping short of requiring customers to do the same.

Sadly, they are forced to weigh the added risk of having unprotected customers in the store against the possibility of facing a public backlash were they to require everyone entering the store to cover their faces.

What I find hard to swallow is the need to require people in public to cover up. No one should have to be told to do so; the evidence for the efficacy of wearing masks is clear. We should all want to do this for everyone’s sake.

I understand some people could legitimately have been confused at one point in this pandemic. They’re still getting jumbled messages from government officials at various levels, from the White House to the courthouse.

It’s true that early there were mixed signals from the medical community as well. Even the vaunted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was not recommending the general use of masks by the public early on in the pandemic.

Part of the reason was that personal protective equipment, including masks, were in short supply and desperately needed by first responders and medical personnel. Another factor was there was little evidence at the time that masks were necessary.

But it’s been more than a month and a half since that guidance was revised.

On April 3, CDC reversed its earlier position, announcing it was now recommending that people wear face coverings in public. The announcement cited new studies on the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.

As an aside, this is one of the great things about science: findings are always tentative and always subject to revision when new evidence is discovered. People are complaining that we’re told one thing today and something contradictory tomorrow.

But that’s a feature of the scientific method, not a bug. Unlike dogma, which is stubborn and immutable, scientific knowledge is fluid. It is always being revised to align with the most recent findings.

Here’s what the latest science is telling us: Wearing a face mask when in public, such as in stores, protects those around you — because you could be infected and not yet know it.

Even if you’ve been recently tested, you still may have contracted the disease since the test was administered or the test may be wrong — no test is 100 percent accurate.

It is now known that people without symptoms can still spread the virus days before they get sick.

A mask can also offer a little bit of protection to the wearer. If two people interact briefly at a safe distance, and both are wearing masks, the chances of either person catching the virus from the other person are significantly reduced.

But that same interaction can transmit the virus from an uncovered, infected person to a masked person much more readily.

So masks do reduce the spread of the coronavirus, and significantly so. Just remember: face coverings are not a substitute for social distancing. We must do both.

So, as we move cautiously to reopen businesses, please keep all this in mind. Think not only of yourself but of those you encounter as you go about your day.

It’s the decent thing to do.

This article appeared in The Winchester Sun on May 22, 2020.

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