Might Masks be in Our Future?

By Dr. Karen Smith, MD, The Old North State Medical Society

The mask – a four-letter word describing a 15-ounce 7” x 7” inch piece of fabric that has the power to elicit rage and fury among millions of adults who ironically understand the concept that covering a sneeze or cough prevents its spread. Might these make a comeback?

For some people, they never left. Now, during the ‘tripledemic’ we’re currently experiencing – the simultaneous occurrence of COVID-19, RSV, and the flu, all of which are dramatically increasing in presence – many people have started to bring them back. And really, we all should.

First and foremost, masks work, and there is ample evidence to prove that fact. A recent study out of Boston found that school districts that had lifted mandates averaged 45 more COVID-19 cases per 1,000 students and staff than those with mandates. Scientists have also suggested that the widespread masking during the beginning of the pandemic may have been the reason flu and RSV rates were at historic lows. This 2022 study found that masks are an effective preventative measure against viral transmission, regardless of the type of mask used, another found that consistently wearing face masks or respirators while in indoor public settings protects against the acquisition of SARS-CoV-2 infection, and a third study from 2022 also found that it is evident that wearing a face mask curbs the rapid transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 from human to human per contact by reducing the chances of transmission of infected respiratory particles in clinical contexts. Not to mention the very basic rule of covering one’s mouth that is understood and implemented without question approximately by age five.

The idea is being floated around. #MaskUp and #BringBackMasks have been trending on social media among healthcare professionals, cruise lines are requiring them again amid increasing cases, officials in Los Angeles are “strongly recommending” them, and Brazil has reintroduced their mask mandate on airplanes.

Why is this notion being bandied about? Because it works. Prior to the weaponization of a mask, people have been willingly masking long before COVID-19. Individuals in Asian countries masked up when they were sick not out of making a statement, but as a courtesy to not infect others. While around people, they shielded themselves from potentially getting others sick, and when they were in less populated areas, they removed them. Simple as that. Cancer patients receiving chemotherapy treatments wear masks because it protects against potentially catching an illness that could cause significant harm. I can remember years ago, a young woman boarding a plane wearing a mask because she was sick and did not want anyone else to catch what she had.

It’s unlikely we’ll see another mandate, because we’ve seen how the suggestion of such a mitigation measure from a governmental entity was received, but I hope that people take it upon themselves to implement this preventable measure. It’s not unreasonable to do so, in my opinion, in order to prevent others from catching one of the three highly contagious respiratory viruses circulating at the moment or to prevent catching any of these uncomfortable illnesses yourself.

It’s a 15-ounce mask worn when in a public place. Is that really too much to ask?

Dr. Karen Smith specializes in family medicine in Raeford, North Carolina. For more than 20 years, Dr. Smith has provided treatment for Hoke County residents of all ages through a family medicine practice that she owns and operates. Dr. Smith is an avid supporter of social service efforts that address rural citizens such as food-related health disparities, afterschool programs and guidance, substance use issues, and sharing pertinent health information. She successfully implemented electronic health records with telehealth as a part of her delivery of care, which provides acute, chronic, and preventive services to the region’s diverse patient population.