Virologist on politicization of masks and their effectiveness against COVID-19

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California Governor Gavin Newsom rolled out a sweeping mask mandate last week. Residents are now required to wear a face covering when they are outside of their homes, at any business, taking public transportation. The list goes on. But Newsom did not specify consequences if Californians do not follow the mandate. Some city leaders, such as Orange County’s sheriff, are not enforcing the new rule. 

A couple of months ago, KCRW talked about the do’s and don’ts of masks with Paula Cannon, professor of microbiology and immunology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. Today we check in with her again. 

“As we're getting further into the pandemic, and we're seeing how people are actually getting infected … this virus is spread by the aerosols and droplets that come out of your mouth and nose. And therefore, the way to stop this is social distancing, and wear a mask,” she says.

In one Missouri hair salon, 140 customers were exposed to two stylists who were infected with COVID-19, but none of the customers got the virus.  

“Here was somebody who was in the sort of acute phase of the infection, exhibiting symptoms, was clearly going to be spreading virus just from breathing and talking. … Now it could have been a disaster. … Over 100 people came through, and nobody was infected. So I think that's just a very powerful, real world example of the fact that masks do work,” Cannon says. 

Masks have been politicized, with people saying that a requirement to wear a mask infringes on freedom. Cannon says she’s concerned when people say this, but she also understands it. 

“I wish we were back to normal. I wish I wasn't reminded every day when I put on a mask that it is not normal. I mean, it's getting old, and I think we're all frustrated with it,” she says. 

She continues, “What I worry about now is the sort of peer pressure aspect of it, that because it has become politicized because people now see that not wearing a mask, it's either bravado or it's making a statement, there is no room for that when we're fighting a pandemic.”

For people who don’t like wearing masks, or maybe their friends are laughing at them for doing so, Cannon has advice. “You just hold in your head that you are doing this for your mom, and your granddad, and all the other people you're going to be interacting with. That I think counts for more.”

—Written by Amy Ta, produced by Jenna Kagel