Coronavirus cases seem to be rising in states with relaxed policies on wearing masks, leading experts to reemphasize the importance of face coverings to preventing spread of the disease.
Sixteen states currently recommend, but do not require, that residents wear masks in public. In those states — including Texas and Arizona — new coronavirus cases have risen by 84% over the last two weeks, according to an Inquirer analysis.
In the 11 states that mandate wearing masks in public — including New York, Illinois, and Michigan — new cases have fallen by 25% over the last two weeks. Other states that are less stringent and require mask-wearing by employees and patrons of certain businesses have seen an overall 12% drop in cases (Pennsylvania, which is in this group, has seen a 28% drop.) Meanwhile, states that require masks only for employees of certain businesses have seen a 70% increase, on average, in new cases.
"Face masking is one of many pillars, including social distancing and proper hand hygiene, that we are using against the virus," said Jade Flinn, nurse educator for the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit. "Face masking is one of the more effective prevention measures because we contain viral particles that may be produced through simple activities like talking or breathing."
Despite changing political debates and public health messaging over the last few months, both common sense and scientific studies suggest that masks help limit the spread of the coronavirus. Recent studies have suggested that people's behavior, including social distancing and the use of face masks, is key to avoiding resurgences of coronavirus cases as states lift lockdown measures.
"The whole point of the mask is to ensure that you are not only protected from others, but asymptomatic carriers — someone who is well and may not know they have been exposed to the virus — contain viral particles that they may be producing when interacting with others," Flinn said.
Still, some states have been more proactive than others as far as requiring the use of face masks in reopening guidelines.
While experts agree that masks are effective, and more restrictive policies are linked with improving virus rates, they caution that other variables also are at work.
Testing capacity plays a role. So does whether people adhere to their state's policies, and when reopenings were initiated. The Department of Health in Florida, where masks have been required only for employees of certain businesses, reported 3,289 new cases Tuesday, increasing the statewide total to 103,506.
Altogether, statewide trends show that universal masking continues to be a challenge for many parts of the country.
"Masking is something that is not ingrained in our culture," Flinn said. "This is something we have to revisit, and there has to be a sense that we have to wear a face mask for others, not just ourselves."
Experts have emphasized that masking is a temporary measure until a vaccine is developed that provides long-standing immunity.
"Every state is going to experience the ebbs and flows of coronavirus rates," Flinn said. "As places continue to open and people become more complacent, it's important to have the same emphasis that we mask. The same feelings and approaches we had in February, March, and April, we should be doing in the summertime, and we shouldn't let our guard down now."