Scientists try to keep coronavirus masks from being swallowed by culture wars

For many free-spirited Americans, a face mask can feel like an uncomfortable stain on personal expression. But as states begin to relax the restrictions on coronaviruses, some medical experts are trying to give these covers a happier face - by promoting them as a symbol of kindness and as a tool to slow virus spread.
"It is really part of our social contract," said Dr. Lisa Maragakis, Senior Director of Infection Prevention at Johns Hopkins University. "It's an act we do to protect other people."
The use of masks as an everyday accessory is not quick or easy for the nation. Almost from day one, masks pressed political buttons.
MORE: CDC recommends face masks and asks Americans to assess the risk of summer events
The spokeswoman for the house, Nancy Pelosi, tried this week to give the fabric cover an old-fashioned machismo.
"Real men wear masks," she said in her weekly press conference on Thursday.
But on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Donald Trump seemed to think the masks had something unmanly about them. Even when his own federal health officials began to strongly recommend their use, he refused to appear in public when he wore one.
"I didn't want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it," he said recently after performing in front of a camera in a Detroit auto factory. He reportedly wore one on a private tour of the facility, which requires masks.
PHOTO: Donna Harkness wears a Trump 2020 mask at a demonstration to demand that state and local authorities lift the restrictions to control the spread of coronavirus in Boston on May 30, 2020. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)
There were signs that face covering could become another cause of skirmishes in the nation's ongoing cultural war, with conservatives such as Louisiana Republican Clay Higgins among a small group of Congress opposing the accessory. Higgins recently went to CNN to declare the masks a form of "dehumanization".
"Can you smell through this mask?" he asked. "Then don't stop any kind of virus."
However, medical experts are increasingly confident that face covering, along with social distancing and frequent hand washing, play an important role in preventing the coronavirus from rising in the community.
MORE: CDC and WHO offer conflicting advice on masks. An expert tells us why.
A new peer-reviewed research paper from the National Academy of Sciences journal reported that decisions about mandatory face coverings are central to mitigating the effects of the pandemic.
Because breath droplets are "the dominant path" for the spread of COVID-19, the researchers found that the use of masks "significantly reduces the number of infections."
Scientists have found that other mitigation measures, even social distancing, "are not enough to protect the public".
Another study, published earlier this month by The Lancet Medical Journal, also found that masks, combined with social distancing and hand washing, can help control the spread of the virus.
PHOTO: House spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi of California arrives for a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday, June 4, 2020. (Susan Walsh / AP)
Maragakis said she doesn't think the material from which the face covering is made is as important as preventing the spread of droplets in the air.
"If you have a fabric mask that you made or that was made for you when you put a headscarf or something on your face, this is for the purpose of catching the breath droplets," she said.
However, even among scientists, there is no one-size-fits-all agreement on the benefits of masks and what types of masks make a difference.
There is a small fraction of infectious disease experts who don't believe there is enough data to support wearing the mask as a mandatory addition to social distancing. Dr. Amesh Adalja of the Infectious Disease Society of America told ABC News that he had seen "a lot of direct evidence" to support the recommendation, especially if these covers are homemade.
Adalja cited New Zealand, where virus spread has largely resolved, as a place where infection was controlled without the widespread use of masks.
"I think there is a lot of back and forth in this debate in the scientific and medical community," said Adalji. "Technically, if you can create social distance, you don't necessarily need a mask."
It remains to be seen whether scientists can prevent masks from becoming prey in cultural wars. Dr. Jay Bhatt, former medical director of the American Hospital Association and contributor to ABC News, hopes that people of all political beliefs will decide that masks make sense in the midst of this crisis.
"Wearing masks as soon as you leave home is one way to protect you, your family, and America," said Bhatt.
Scientists are trying to prevent coronavirus masks from being swallowed by culture wars that originally appeared on

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