Opinion

Get a better mask

As more infectious coronavirus variants spread, all Americans should be equipped with high-filtration, tight-fitting face coverings

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

Come have a look at my mask collection. There, on a corner counter in my kitchen, is a heaping pile of protection: a box of blue surgical masks, two kinds of KF94s from South Korea, a dozen KN95s from China (NIOSH certified!), and several authentic N95s. I've shared my stash with my wife, my daughters, and my mom's caregivers, hoping to keep the coronavirus out of our bodies. At a time when so little is under control, masks give us a way of managing risk when we go out into our besieged world. In crowded indoor spaces where we work or buy food, high-quality masks with multiple layers can keep you from inhaling — or spreading — tiny droplets of aerosolized virus. The failure of our government to educate Americans about masks and make good ones available is "unconscionable," says Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, an infectious-disease expert at Boston Medical Center. She's among the many physicians calling for "the equivalent of Operation Warp Speed" to make and distribute high-filtration masks to all Americans at a cheap price.

A year ago, South Korea — a densely populated nation of 51 million people — immediately began widespread distribution of KF94 masks. It's had 1,441 COVID deaths, compared with nearly 450,000 in the U.S. In Taiwan, where mask wearing is also near-universal, there have been eight COVID deaths. With new coronavirus variants spreading, the need for high-quality masks — or double masking with a surgical and cloth mask — is even more urgent. The variants appear to be at least 50 percent more contagious, and may reduce the effectiveness of vaccines. Viral mutations might even reinfect those who've already had COVID. And it may be five or six months before vaccines are widely available in the U.S. So, friends, mask up — with the best ones you can find. Yes, wearing a mask can be annoying. But it's so much less annoying than wearing an oxygen mask in the ICU.

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