Tegan and I started wearing some form of face covering, even if it was just a bandana, early in 2020. Everything we’d seen indicated that some covering was better than none, and that still seems to be the case. As the pandemic progressed, we decided that once it was “over”, we’d keep masking in most indoor, public areas. Ireland has had consistently low COVID numbers since August, and vaccination rates are high, so the vast majority of people have stopped wearing them.
It seems that the U.S. is not doing so well, partly because of the consistent politicization of vaccines and mask-wearing by the right wing. One of the more shameful versions of this has been the insistence that children are not at risk from COVID, and so there should be no measures taken to protect them or their teachers. This is often supported by the claim that “masks don’t work anyway” (for those who don’t claim that masks on children are literal child abuse). One might hope that such obvious bullshit wouldn’t need correcting, but if one actually believed that, one would be extremely naïve. Of course it needs debunking, and while I have little hope that this will reach those who most need to hear it, here’s some research:
The lifting of masking requirements in school districts outside of Boston in February 2022 was associated with an additional 44.9 COVID-19 cases per 1,000 students and staff in the 15 weeks after the statewide masking policy was rescinded. This represented nearly 12,000 total COVID-19 cases or 30% of all cases in those school districts that unmasked during that time, according to a new study led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Boston Public Health Commission, and Boston University School of Public Health.
“Our study shows that universal masking is an important strategy to reduce transmission in schools and one that should be considered in mitigation planning to keep students and staff healthier and minimize loss of in-person school days,” said Tori Cowger, corresponding author and Health and Human Rights fellow in the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard Chan School. “Our results also suggest that universal masking may be an important tool for mitigating structural inequities that have led to unequal conditions in schools and differential risk of severe COVID-19, educational disruptions, and health and economic effects of secondary transmission to household members.”
Basically, because different school districts ended mask requirements at different times, the researchers were able to compare infection rates, and tie the increase in cases to the change in policy.
The findings also showed that the effect of school masking policies was greatest during periods when COVID-19 incidence was highest in surrounding cities and towns, suggesting that implementing universal masking policies during times of high transmission would be most effective.
“This study provides clear support for the importance of universal masking to reduce transmission of COVID-19 in school settings, especially when community COVID levels are high,” said study co-author Eleanor Murray, assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health. “Masking reduces COVID-19 transmission in schools in an equitable and easy to implement way and should be part of any layered mitigation strategy.”
There may be valid reasons to be concerned about universal mask-wearing. Leaving aside matters of personal preference, I could see them being extremely isolating for people who rely on lip-reading for communication. It also wouldn’t shock me to learn that masking in school could mess with social development in some ways – I honestly don’t know, though I presume we’ll see research on that at some point.
But I think the larger takeaway here is clear – masks should be something we use a lot more, going forward, than we used to. COVID isn’t the only illness they can help with, and it’s also unlikely to be the last pandemic in our lifetimes. There’s also the simple fact that we have no real way of knowing how many immunocompromised people we come across in our day to day lives, or how many simply cannot afford the wages they’d lose from a week of sickness. I’m going to keep wearing a mask, and that’s no great burden. I know there are some places back in the U.S. where doing so might be inviting harassment, but the most I get here is the occasional odd look, and I get those anyway.
In general, just wear a mask when you’re in indoor public places.