If all Americans were to wear a mask in public, the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. could be brought under control within two months. That was the assertion Tuesday by Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who also co-wrote an editorial calling for universal use of masks.
Redfield's comments come as more states, cities and businesses enact mandatory face mask use to stop the surge of the new coronavirus and avoid having to shut down. These rules usually are limited to indoor settings, but also outdoors if social distancing cannot be maintained.
"I think if we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really do think in four, six, eight weeks we could bring this epidemic under control," Redfield said in a discussion with the Journal of the American Medical Association.
He added that because of the combination of the coronavirus and the flu, "the fall and the winter of 2020 and 2021 are going to be probably one of the most difficult times that we've experienced in American public health."
The CDC says cloth face coverings can "help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and onto other people when the person wearing the cloth face covering coughs, sneezes, talks, or raises their voice." It recommends anyone over the age of 2 wear a face covering in public settings, especially when social distancing cannot be maintained.
The emerging rules have been met with resistance by those who insist they will not wear a mask for various reasons, from concerns that it will harm them, to claims that masks are ineffective to fears that mask-wearing infringes upon their individual liberties.
Redfield said he felt heartened that more people are wearing masks, including President Donald Trump who wore a mask in public for the first time during a visit wounded servicemembers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Saturday.
Redfield co-authored an editorial published in JAMA Tuesday titled "Universal Masking to Prevent SARS-CoV-2 Transmission—The Time Is Now."
The authors noted a case in Springfield, Mo., in which stylists at a hair salon were infected with COVID-19. Before their diagnosis, they wore masks while serving 139 clients. Contact tracing revealed no clients were exposed and there was no secondary exposure. Of 104 clients interviewed, 102 wore masks during their appointments. The CDC said a company policy and city ordinance may have played a role.
Redfield and his co-authors also cite a Goldman Sachs study that found increased mask use could save the country $1 trillion by helping to prevent stay-at-home orders.
"I always say we are not defenseless against this virus. The most powerful weapons we have are face coverings ... washing our hands and really being smart about social distancing. If we all rigorously did this, we could really bring this outbreak back to where it needs to be and shut down transmission," Redfield told JAMA.
Last week, the Retail Industry Leaders Association publicized a letter it sent to state governors to mandate store customers to wear face coverings. It said the hodgepodge of rules around the country have created confusion for shoppers and that has lead to conflict between customers and workers trying to enforce store rules. Fewer than half of U.S. states require masks in public places, according to the RILA.
Social media is full of videos capturing clashes between those who are asked to wear masks, and employees who are under orders to make sure people wear them.
There have been 3.4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and more than 136,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. Since July 1, the U.S. has recorded more than 50,000 new cases per day --including a record high of more than 66,000 last Friday -- as states including California, Florida, Arizona and Texas see a surge in cases.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.