Face masks—Are they critical or ideology-driven overkill? Here’s the science

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Credit: Abel Mitjà Varela/Getty Images

Face masks are the ubiquitous symbol of a pandemic that has sickened 35 million people and killed more than 1 million. In hospitals and other health-care facilities, the use of medical-grade masks clearly cuts down transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But for the variety of masks in use by the public, the data are messy, disparate and often hastily assembled.

To be clear, the science supports using masks, with recent studies suggesting that they could save lives in different ways: research shows that they cut down the chances of both transmitting and catching the coronavirus, and some studies hint that masks might reduce the severity of infection if people do contract the disease.

But being more definitive about how well they work or when to use them gets complicated. There are many types of mask, worn in a variety of environments. There are questions about people’s willingness to wear them, or wear them properly. Even the question of what kinds of study would provide definitive proof that they work is hard to answer.

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Nevertheless, most scientists are confident that they can say something prescriptive about wearing masks. It’s not the only solution, says [infectious disease physician Monica] Gandhi, “but I think it is a profoundly important pillar of pandemic control”. As [virologist Paul] Digard puts it: “Masks work, but they are not infallible. And, therefore, keep your distance.”

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