The author in a mask. (Paul Hansen)

It is now clear that widespread use of facemasks is an effective complement to hand washing and social distancing to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Even homemade masks, buffs or kerchiefs can add a significant level of protection.

Masks are particularly effective at keeping somebody who already has the virus, but may not know it, from spreading it to others. Masks also provide some protection from large droplets and some aerosols for wearers who are not infected. Masks help to keep us from touching our faces.

A peer-reviewed study published in the journal Nature last week found that even cotton masks stopped the spread of almost 100% of other seasonal coronaviruses and more than 70% of influenza virus infections. Masks were not as effective in reducing transmission of rhinoviruses — the common cold.

Clearly, personal respirators are more protective than surgical masks, which are more effective than homemade masks. For now, we need to leave the scarce professionally made masks for healthcare workers. Thanks to seamstresses and crafters across the state, homemade masks are being donned in all sorts of capacities by people not on the front line. And they don’t have to be fashioned from scratch — neck gaiters doubled over covering your nose and mouth make an effective mask.

In Czechoslovakia and Austria, mask use in public is compulsory. Homemade masks for all residents were produced in days. These countries have seen much lower infection rates than the rest of Europe. In Hong Kong, Mongolia, South Korea and Taiwan, all of which have COVID-19 largely under control, people wear masks as part of social distancing.

In a report released by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, former Food and Drug Administration commissioners, both Republicans and Democrats, concluded that: “Everyone, including people without symptoms, should be encouraged to wear nonmedical fabric face masks while in public … they’re much less likely to transmit infection.”

The arguments against masks are fatuous at best. Homemade masks can meet shortage concerns. Washing masks and letting them dry at night takes care of the contamination canard that infected masks will make things worse. The most nonsensical argument is that mask use will encourage risky behavior. Seat belts and air bags do not make us worse drivers. They save lives. So do masks.

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Today, universal mask wearing in public places should be a part of the solution. Here in Wyoming, we especially need to wear them in stores where 6-foot separation in the aisles and at checkout is not possible. Doctors, nurses, grocery store clerks and package delivery drivers are putting their health at risk for us; so we can wear masks to protect them. It is highly likely that infected people are walking by us in our stores.

Until late last week, both the Trump Administration and the Wyoming Department of Health advised that only people with symptoms should wear masks. This made no sense, since a person who does not yet show symptoms can still be contagious. In countries where testing is widespread, about 25-50% of those positive for COVID-19 showed no symptoms.  National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony S. Fauci warned in early February that people without symptoms spread COVID-19.

On April 3, the Trump Administration and Wyoming Department of Health officials reversed their position and now encourage facemask use; but stopped short of requiring it. On April 5, the Pentagon mandated that everyone at Defense Department facilities cover their faces to stop the spread of coronavirus. Today, towns all over America are requiring facemask use in public places.

Our state should follow the lead of these towns and the Pentagon by requiring facemask use in public places where people congregate and we may not be able to maintain 6 feet of social distance. Doing less puts us all at greater risk. Facemask use will help defeat this virus and save lives.

Paul Hansen

Wyoming resident Paul Hansen is a lifelong hunter and angler and the former executive director of the Izaak Walton League of America.

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  1. Thanks, Paul, for your comments. A couple weeks ago I met the Head of Homeland Security for New Mexico, an expert on Ebola brought on board by that terrific governor Michelle Grisham when she was first elected. When he noticed I was wearing a face mask, he volunteered that he wore one all over Africa during Ebola and highly recommends them especially for that one time encounter when someone sneezes or coughs unexpectedly in passing. He also cautioned me to wear them correctly and never pull them up and down over the chin to drink liquid and spread the very bacteria I was keeping out. Never had thought about that.
    Jean Ferguson
    Jackson