Mask Hysteria? Scientists Say No

May 27, 2020

We don't know everything about the coronavirus, but we certainly know more than we did. And while we might have made different decisions with more information, America's top medical experts agree: we did the best with what we had. But now, Dr. Martin Makary points out, it's time to learn from those choices and move on.

The Johns Hopkins University professor, like a lot of health professionals, was an advocate of the lockdown. "We didn't have good [information] going into this pandemic," he explained on "Washington Watch." "We had really poor data from overseas. Some of it was not recorded, honestly. We didn't know the denominator. We didn't even know how contagious it was. So we threw the kitchen sink at this, and we asked the country to make major sacrifices this March. I was one of those people calling for a shutdown of non-essential activities. But now we need to [adapt]."

Obviously, every situation -- every locality -- is different. There is no one-size-fits-all virus approach. But in many ways, "the country cannot tolerate a harsh lockdown any longer," Dr. Makary warned. And unfortunately, the whole idea of reopening has become a polarized issue, he agreed. "And the answer is somewhere in the middle. We've got to reopen, but we've got to do it carefully... Not all reopenings are created equally."

But there are, he writes in the New York Times, things everyone can do to lessen the risk until we have a vaccine. One of the things scientists have learned is that the virus is transferred more from airborne droplets and less from commonly touched surfaces. These are micro-droplets, Dr. Makary says, that spread when people sing, talk, or spit. And the number one thing we can do to reduce that transmission is wear masks. "It actually allows us to do a lot of activities that we previously didn't think we could do with the virus in the background."

Now, obviously, he joked, if you're living in Palau or somewhere with almost no virus, then "live your life." But right now, people should wear masks. Grocery stores, busy running trails -- anywhere you're close to people and can't maintain a six-foot distance. But speaking of running trails, one of the best things people can do is spend more time outside. Early on, Dr. Makary shook his head, "we should not have told people to stay [inside] their home. We should have told them to stay on their property -- or try to do things outdoors [where we've discovered it's safer]." The virus doesn't like the heat and humidity, which may be why southern states didn't get hit as hard as places like Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, and Minnesota.

In the meantime, businesses need to rethink their processes too. And that shouldn't be a partisan issue, Dr. Makary agrees. "Instead of talking about whether or not something should be open or closed, we should be talking about whether or not they can maintain distancing, use good hygiene, and safe precautions. If they can't -- [like a] crowded NFL stadium for example -- that would [mean it's time to] modify or postpone." But where it's easier to distance, the path to functioning is clear.

"The choice before us isn't to fully lock down or to totally reopen. Many argue as though those are the only options. As a physician, I firmly believe that the primary goal of our reopening strategy should be to maximize the number of lives saved. But virus mitigation can take many forms, ranging from effective to excessive... The current 'normal,' with its economic anxiety, skyrocketing unemployment, and social isolation, can't carry on -- we should work toward a new status quo until there's an available, mass-produced therapeutic."