The truth about masks

The truth about masks
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With 20 states and Puerto Rico reporting a record-high number of new coronavirus infections over the past week, and with at least 3.4 million total cases and more than 138,000 deaths, the pandemic is forcing all of us to rethink our behavior.

In particular, the question of wearing a mask while in public to prevent the spread of the coronavirus has gone from being a political football to something deemed necessary to board an airplane. 

The mask issue was politically charged from the start when President TrumpDonald John TrumpTeachers union launches 0K ad buy calling for education funding in relief bill FDA head pledges 'we will not cut corners' on coronavirus vaccine Let our values drive COVID-19 liability protection MORE announced in early April that he would not wear a mask at the same press briefing in which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that it had changed its guidance to include having some kind of cloth over your nose and mouth in public to protect yourself and others from contracting COVID-19.  

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Since then, the president has donned a mask on several occasions, most recently during a visit to Walter Reed Hospital, and more than 20 states are now mandating masks as a surge of cases continues across the country. In some states, such as Texas, the orders to wear a mask vary from county to county. In other states, such as Indiana, protests are erupting over masking rules.

So, where does the public stand on wearing masks?

Gallup has been tracking public sentiment about masks, and its findings give us good intelligence about our behavior.

The good news is that 9 out of 10 Americans say they used a mask in the past week. But once you delve into the data, the actual masking activity is not that promising. The poll offered respondents a range of choices in terms of how often they wear masks, which also included “very often,” “sometimes” and “rarely.”

That’s where things get tricky and highly political. 

Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to wear a face mask outside the home. Sixty-one percent of Democrats say they always wear a mask, compared with 24 percent of Republicans, according to the poll results. Meanwhile, 27 percent of Republicans say they never wear a mask outside the home, compared with only 1 percent of Democrats.

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Gallup also found differences based on gender and region. Fifty-four percent of women say they always wear a face covering outside the home, compared with 34 percent of men. Meanwhile, 54 percent of Americans living in the Northeast say they always wear masks, compared with 47 percent in the South, 42 percent in the West and 33 percent in the Midwest. 

Although we hear it on a near-daily basis, the virus does not seem to care where you are from, how you voted, or about your views on politics. It simply looks for a body and infects it.

Scientists around the world are making the case for the mask as a line of defense, not a panacea. It is one tool in our toolbox. Why not use it?

The question of mandating masks should be as easy as wearing a seatbelt. It’s a matter of safety. Put politics aside and go with prevention and protection. More difficult will be the issue of enforcement. 

Americans are struggling with the mask issue much as we are struggling with all behavioral changes related to the virus. Part of that is the rules keep changing and the messaging is muddled.

Over the weekend Surgeon General Jerome Adams said, “I want people to understand why they should wear a face covering and they are going to be more likely to do it and more likely to do it willingly and they're going to be more likely to do it when we are not watching which is important.”

How’s that for clarity?

And just as we thought Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciPublic health expert: 50 percent effective coronavirus vaccine would be 'better than what we have now' Overnight Health Care: Trump to take executive action after coronavirus talks collapse | Vaccine official says he'd resign if pressured politically Fauci's DC neighbors put up 'thank you' signs in their yards MORE, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was in charge, he appeared to have been sidelined in recent weeks. But this week he is back at the White House

Confusion is the theme of this administration. When nobody is in charge, everybody is in charge and things get out of control, as we are seeing with the spread of COVID-19.

As far as I’m concerned, the truth about masks is easy: Don’t ask, wear a mask. 

Tara D. Sonenshine is former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.