We’ve been told, over and over, that the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19 is to wear a cloth mask and socially distance. Axios reports that CDC director Robert Redfield has said, “if we did it for 6, 8, 10, 12 weeks, we’d bring this pandemic under control.” Basically: if every American wore a mask every time they left the house for six weeks to three months, we would have the coronavirus under control. It’s that simple.
But rather than rely on their masks, people have latched onto the idea of a vaccine. It’s not a shock: a one-time stick sounds much better than a cloth mask, which can be uncomfortable to wear and fog glasses. It’s hard to read someone’s emotions and intentions when they speak through a mask; it’s a pain to remember to bring PPE everywhere.
There’s one problem.
Cloth masks, according to Redfield, may be more effective than a vaccine — or may need to be combined with a vaccine, at least initially.
What Redfield Says About Cloth Masks
Redfield spoke to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee meeting on Sept 16, according to Axios, and said that, “These face masks are the most important, powerful public health tool we have.” That’s because “the immunogenicity [of a vaccine] may be 70%, and if I don’t get an immune response, the vaccine’s not going to protect me. This face mask will.” In other words, only 70% of the people who receive a COVID-19 shot may show an immune response. Since we don’t know who those people are, wearing a cloth face mask is the best way to protect yourself.
What Was That About A Vaccine?
According to NPR, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief of the National Institute of Health and Infectious Disease, has said that we can’t expect the vaccine to be the magic bullet that defeats COVID-19. Far from it: he says we don’t know if the “efficacy of the vaccine” will be 50% or 60%. He says he would like the vaccine to be 75% effective, but that might not be realistic.
Say what now? We may have a vaccine and still have to wear cloth masks?
Vaccine effectiveness means this: at 50% efficacy, if you administer the vaccine to 100 people, 50 people will still contract the disease. However, the good news is that, like the flu vaccine, “It’s possible that the [COVID-19] vaccine will reduce the severity of disease,” says physician Bill Miller of The Ohio State University College of Public Health. Basically: there’s a chance that if you get the vaccine, you’re among that unlucky 50%, and you contract COVID-19, you’re less likely to go to the hospital, need a respirator, or die.
But we don’t know for certain that the vaccine will confer partial immunity.
There’s Another Reason We’ll Still Need Cloth Masks…
Vaccine efficacy assumes 100 people get the vaccine. According to the Pew Research Institute, as of May 2020, 27% of Americans would refuse a COVID-19 vaccine. But as of Sept 16, 49% of Americans said they “probably” or “definitely” would not get the vaccine.
Only 21% of Americans say they would “definitely” get vaccinated.
That’s because most Americans (77%) feel a vaccine will be available before “its safety and effectiveness are fully understood.” More than three-quarters of people who refuse vaccinations worry about side effects. Almost a third of them think “they don’t need the vaccine.” And if the vaccine’s only 60% effective, in which case we would still need cloth masks, people were “a little less likely” to get one.
So even when a vaccine is available, a whole lot of Americans will be running around without it.
But You Have To Wear a Cloth Mask Properly
This assumes, of course, you’re wearing your cloth mask properly. A cloth mask needs at least two layers. It has to cover your nose and secure under your chin with no gaps, says the CDC, and “fit snugly” around the sides of your face. The efficacy of gaiters, they warn, isn’t proven.
Then you have to put on and take off the cloth mask properly. First, sanitize your hands. While you’re wearing the mask, don’t touch it, and if you have to, sanitize your hands before and after. When you take the mask off, the CDC says, you must take if off by only touching the parts securing it to your ears. You should then fold the cloth mask in two, outer side down, and not reuse it until washing.
The Mayo Clinic says that “a cloth mask is intended to trap droplets that are released when the wearer talks, coughs or sneezes.” In other words, that mask may be covered in infectious droplets, so you do not want to touch it. Touching it could spread COVID-19.
This Doesn’t Mean You Shouldn’t Get Vaccinated.
When a COVID-19 vaccine is available to the public, get one. You could be one of the 70% for whom the vaccine works. Those are great odds in Vegas. And if you get COVID-19 despite the vaccine, you could get a lesser case— maybe even just something like the common cold.
Common cold versus ventilator? Take the common cold, people.
So Buy Some Pretty Cloth Masks…
Because you’re going to be wearing them for a while, if you’re responsible. As Axios says, while a vaccine is the best long term solution, studies say that cloth masks “could result in a large reduction in risk of infection.” This is especially true when they’re combined with social distancing and proper sanitation/hand washing.
Even though a vaccine could “[convert] this infection to a upper respiratory illness,” says vaccine expert Kanta Subbarao to Stat News, its efficacy may be measured in months, not years. It’s likely, based on early vaccine studies, that someone with no more than a COVID-19 upper respiratory infection could still spread the virus to others, too: which cloth masks also prevent.
So while we hope a vaccine will reduce the severity of COVID-19, researchers can’t guarantee it, and they say that the chances of achieving what they call “sterilizing immunity,” i.e., total protection, it’s unlikely, several scientists told Stat News.
Your best protection for avoiding COVID-19 infection, then, even after the vaccine is available, remains a cloth mask. So buy some that you like. You’re going to need them for a while.
Information about COVID-19 is rapidly changing, and Scary Mommy is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. With news being updated so frequently, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For this reason, we are encouraging readers to use online resources from local public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization to remain as informed as possible.