Three major professional health organizations in the US issued a joint open letter to the public on July 6, urging the public to continue taking the evidence-based steps which can curb the spread of COVID-19.
Health professionals support universal masking
While the number of cases is surging after most states relaxed restrictions, many members of the public are resisting the basic public health measures, which can help to control the pandemic. This is what prompted the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Nurses Association to publish the open letter.
“This is why as physicians, nurses, hospital and health system leaders, researchers and public health experts, we are urging the American public to take the simple steps we know will help stop the spread of the virus: wearing a face mask, maintaining physical distancing, and washing hands,” the letter states. “We are not powerless in this public health crisis, and we can defeat it in the same way we defeated previous threats to public health—by allowing science and evidence to shape our decisions and inform our actions.”
The open letter followed a statement issued by the Council of Medical Subspecialty Societies (CMSS) advocating for a national mandate for universal masking. The CMSS represents about 800,000 doctors.
Why the public is resistant to masking
The public’s’ resistance to wearing masks could partly be blamed on confusion caused by the messages at the start of the pandemic. Initially, the public was discouraged from wearing masks due to the shortage of PPE for those on the frontlines. It was also believed that cloth masks would not be effective in protecting against infection – there was as yet little evidence to support universal masking.
A further reason for the resistance could be what neuroscientists call “anchoring bias” – where our brains give most credit to the initial information with the result that people stick to first impressions unless they are trained in critically evaluating new evidence.
The effectiveness of universal masking is evidence-based
The guidelines on wearing masks were changed as a result of mounting evidence. It is now known that the virus is spread by aerosol while just speaking, not only through large droplets. Also that it can be spread by those who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, and that viral load can make the difference between mild or severe symptoms.
While cloth masks cannot wholly curb the spread of the virus, universal masking will significantly reduce the potential viral load during contact and in the environment. The effectiveness of universal masking is further supported by the lower death rates in some Eastern countries where masking is a culturally accepted practice. Estimates are that if 80% of people wore masks it could have a more significant effect on slowing down the infection rate than strict lockdown.
Nurses should actively advocate for universal masking to help counteract the previous mixed messages and to convince the public that masking, together with social distancing, can make a real difference in curbing the pandemic. They can do this through setting an example, keeping informed of the latest evidence, sharing relevant messages over social media, and educating those they come into contact with. After all, nurses have been rated as the most trusted professionals in the US.