BRAINERD, Minn. -- In 2020, mask usage became a nationwide phenomenon that could be seen in virtually every community in the United States.
And for good reason. Since the arrival of COVID-19 to American shores last year, doctors have credited masks with being a primary barrier against the spread of a pandemic that killed nearly 600,000 Americans and millions across the globe.
It’s not only the coronavirus either. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu deaths in the 2020-21 season plummeted compared to the 2019-20 season. Typically peaking between December and February each year, an average flu season results in 45 million illnesses, 810,000 hospitalizations and 61,000 deaths in the United States. This last season? There were only 1,455 cases of influenza recorded in the United States and much of that precipitous decline is credited to mask usage.
As such, the benefits of mask usage are well documented. Other nations have been practicing precautionary mask usage for decades, particularly in East Asian countries like Japan or South Korea where it’s customary to don a mask during vulnerable periods like flu season or as a matter of etiquette, such as when the wearer has a cold they don’t want to share with others.
It poses the question: Now that Americans have used masks en masse and the benefits of mask usage can be widely appreciated, will we see more and more people using masks in the coming months and years after COVID-19 is long gone?
“I do foresee that when we get into our typical cold and influenza seasons, that there will be a portion of our society — especially those that consider themselves at greater risk for complications of even regular influenza — that they will wear masks among the general public,” said Dr. Peter Henry, chief medical officer for Essentia Health. “The stigma of wearing a mask clearly has decreased. Historically, I think if you walked into a store wearing a mask, they’d give you an ugly look and say, ‘What's wrong with you?’ I think that that's clearly changed at this point in time.”
Dr. Rob Westin, chief medical officer with Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in the Brainerd lakes area, was a little more restrained with his assessment, though he agreed with Henry that mask usage among certain pockets of the population — particularly the immunocompromised — would likely see an uptick in coming years as it becomes more normalized.
“It’s a question we’re all asking. That's always hard to predict,” Westin said during a May phone interview. “Obviously, even during the pandemic mask wearing was difficult to get 100% compliance. The understanding then was that it was an intrusion on privacy, but in reality it was being done more to help your neighbor and your family member not get the infection. We know that there's a small percentage of individuals that have clearly been against mask mandates and mask wearing from the get go, similarly to vaccination.”
On that last count, Westin noted roughly 11-16% of Minnesotans are unlikely or adamantly opposed to getting a COVID-19 vaccine. That limits the effectiveness of the vaccine, he noted, just as having a small, but steady subsection of the population that refuses to wear masks ultimately hurt the nation’s efforts to curb COVID-19, resulting in the unnecessary deaths of thousands upon thousands of citizens.
In other words, Westin said, getting an entire culture on board with an initiative that protects society, but where the benefit to the individual is not as obvious, is a difficult proposition even during times of crisis.
“Would (there be enough mask usage) to stop a future outbreak? I’m not sure. There is some benefit to the individual by wearing one. They would not get infected as readily,” Westin added. “I think that's probably more likely the tactic people will take. If they feel like wearing a mask makes them less likely to get it, they'll probably wear a mask. I think people tend to have a very independent-minded mentality. I think that that's been pretty clearly shown across many different spectrums of issues.”
There is another factor to consider. While mask mandates came during 2020, stay-at-home advisories and closures of public spaces/businesses were also common. It’s impossible to quantify just how much staying at home compared to mask usage curbed COVID-19, Westin and Henry said, but it is abundantly clear that both methods, when practiced by a large portion of a given community, were effective in slowing the coronavirus.
“It really is nearly impossible to be able to put percentages on each of those things. We heard from the experts that in order for us to have an impact on the pandemic, we’d have to do all of these things: social distance, hygiene, staying home when you're sick, and wearing masks,” Westin said. “If you did all of them and we did them well, we saw the numbers improve.”
As the pandemic wanes, both physicians said people can take significant steps to protect themselves and those they care about, especially senior citizens and those with weak immune systems.
Simply put, Westin and Henry said, if people aren’t vaccinated, they should get vaccinated and if they’re feeling unwell, they should get tested for COVID-19.
“COVID-19 is going to be with us for a while. It's not gone,” Henry said. “ … If you have symptoms, get tested. That's the way to prevent isolated small pockets of outbreaks.”
“We do know that the vaccines work and that they are a key part of cutting the rate of infection and cutting this pandemic down,” Westin said. “I would just encourage people to again look at getting vaccinated. The vaccine is safe and effective. It's been proven across the world to cut down on rates of infection. And that would be true for the coronavirus vaccine, as well as the influenza vaccine and other infectious disease vaccines that we have out there.”