Opinion and Editorial

Lose the virus, keep the mask

Yoo Jung Kim
Filed on April 18, 2021 | Last updated on April 19, 2021 at 06.46 am

When I immigrated to the United States, I brought a cotton mask with me, and on a crisp fall day, I decided to wear it to my elementary school.

I grew up in South Korea, where mask-wearing was an accepted norm. Individuals would don face coverings for a myriad of reasons: when they were feeling sick; when they didn’t have enough time to put on makeup; when the air was so cold it chapped their skin; and when high-speed winds kicked up dense dust storms in the deserts of China and Mongolia that wrought havoc on neighbouring countries.

When I immigrated to the United States, I brought a cotton mask with me, and on a crisp fall day, I decided to wear it to my elementary school. The mask immediately drew the attention of my concerned classmates and teacher, who asked if I was feeling OK. I stopped wearing it.

Back then, I never would have expected that mask-wearing was to become mandatory. Then, at the beginning of the pandemic, industrious home sewers churned out fabric masks with rapid alacrity. Then mass-market clothing companies, such as Old Navy and Uniqlo, started offering multi-pack masks in their stores. Later, even luxury houses have followed suit, with brands like Burberry and Louis Vuitton offering facial coverings for consumers at exorbitant prices.

Now that the United States is starting to lift the restrictions and mandates placed to stem further transmission of Covid-19, I hope that the trend of mask-wearing will continue among the public.

The primary reason for continued mask-wearing is for our continued safety. Even with the influx of vaccinations, Covid-19 and its variants will continue to be a vexing health concern in the future. For example, Pfizer’s Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla recently stated that those who received Covid-19 vaccinations would still likely require annual booster doses to update their immune systems against variants, like yearly flu vaccines. Continuing to don masks provides an extra layer of protection for some time to come.

Speaking of the flu, masks are also likely to prevent the transmission of diseases that we know well. In the 2019-2020 influenza season — a less deadly flu season than most — the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that 38 million individuals caught influenza, leading to 22,000 deaths. Now, nearing the end of the 2020-2021 season, flu mortality has been reduced to 595 cases thus far, making this season a non-event. While the impact of the masks is challenging to parse from the other interventions against Covid-19, such as maintaining social distancing, closing schools, and washing hands, previous researchers have also noted masks will reduce the transmission of respiratory viruses as well.

Furthermore, Covid-19 will not be our last pandemic. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Ebola, avian influenza, swine flu, Zika, and Dengue fever have occurred or recurred within the last 20 years. With the growing increase in global travel, climate change, and increased human-animal contact, the rise of new epidemics and pandemics will become more common.

Ultimately, the case for masks will be a matter of personal choice. However, I hope that the normalisation of masks this past year will allow them to take their rightful place in our wardrobes as an article of clothing with a specific purpose, akin to gloves and scarves. A mask may not be appropriate for all seasons or occasions, but it will be an article of clothing with an essential role in our self-expression and protection against the elements.

Yoo Jung Kim is a physician at a safety-net hospital in California.

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