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Pandemic experts say we may live with masks for years

how long do we need to wear masks
Photo via Baker County Tourism Travel/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

When COVID-19 first reached the U.S. in March and communities subsequently began to shut down, many people could not imagine living in a pandemic past Easter Sunday. But five months later, when people wonder how long we need to wear masks, experts say the culture of mask-wearing could be the norm for years to come. 

In a report from Nature, health experts say the pandemic is here “for the longhaul.” But research has found that hand-washing and wearing masks can dramatically curb the spread of the virus. 

“It’s undervalued how much people’s behaviour has changed in terms of masks, hand washing, and social distancing,” Samir Bhatt, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Imperial College London, told Nature. “It’s nothing like it used to be.”

A research team at Anhembi Morumbi University in São Paulo, Brazil found that if 50–65% of people take precautions in public, then “stepping down social-distancing measures every 80 days could help to prevent further infection peaks over the next two years,” according to the science journal. 

“We’re going to need to change the culture of how we interact with other people,” computational biologist Osmar Pinto Neto said. 

Other researchers have seen how not adhering to these safety guidelines can take a toll on entire countries. Infectious-disease modeler Jorge Velasco-Hernández at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Juriquilla said if 70% of Mexico’s population committed to hand-washing and mask-wearing back in March, the country’s outbreak would have begun to decline by June, Nature reported. Instead, the country opened in time for two major public holidays, and cases plateaued. 

Even though many COVID-19 vaccines have reached clinical trials, CNET reported that experts say it could still be at least a year before a vaccine is accessible for most Americans. And on Sept. 16, Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC, said masks might be important to stopping the pandemic than a vaccine.

Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told CNET that mass immunization may not occur until 2022. Until then, Americans should get comfortable wearing face coverings (of course, finding the best face masks is awfully important). 

“I think that mask wearing and some degree of social distancing, we will be living with—hopefully living with happily—for several years,” Toner said.

Toner said that face coverings are a way to “control our future.” 

“It’s actually pretty straightforward,” he said. “If we cover our faces, and both you and anyone you’re interacting with are wearing a mask, the risk of transmission goes way down. Being outside, having distance between you and other people reduces the risk of transmission dramatically.” 

According to CBC News, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, echoed that sentiment in a briefing on Aug. 4. She also expressed concern that even once a vaccine is developed, it might be a while before manufacturers can produce enough doses for the entire population (though there are now four companies who have moved into Phase 3 trials). 

“We can’t at this stage just put all of our focus [on a vaccine] in the hopes that this is the silver bullet solution,” Tam said. “We’re going to have to manage this pandemic certainly over the next year, but certainly [we are] planning for the longer term of the next two to three years during which the vaccine may play a role but we don’t know yet.”

Until then, remember this: You should STILL be wearing a face mask when you’re around other people. 

Read more on coronavirus face coverings:

Sources: Nature, CNET, CBC News


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