- - Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Symbols matter. Some result from trendy twists in popular culture, others are born out of abject necessity. The face mask, a symbol of the will to survive in this pandemic-wracked era, is both. A half-year into the struggle, the unknowns about combating the coronavirus still threaten to overwhelm the knowns, even when the subject is face coverings. As a symbol, the face mask represents solidarity with the campaign to crush COVID-19. As a means of dampening the spread of infection, it’s better than nothing, probably.

For the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, face masks have taken on the look of a fashion accessory, featuring a variety of colorful styles to match her outfit of the day. For bikers and runners, sporting a low-slung neck gaiter exhibits an aptitude for both social awareness and enviable fitness. Grocery-store clerks with black masks pulled beneath the chin simply show how rules are bent for life in the real world.

Beyond the realm of virtue signals, at least 30 states have instituted face mask mandates. If they clearly control the virus, reason dictates that where face mask usage is high, death rates should be low. It is not necessarily the case.

The United States has the dreadful honor of chalking up the world’s highest COVID-19 death count, with 150,000 fatalities since the virus erupted, according to Johns Hopkins University data compiled by Worldometer. The death rate of 453 per 1 million population, though, is far from the highest. During the months of disease, face mask usage among Americans climbed slowly from 7% of the population in early March to 74% by July 20, according to global surveys conducted by YouGov.

Italy, one of the European nations most ravaged by the virus, has recorded a death rate of 581 per 1 million — worse than that of the U.S. During the same period, Italy’s mask usage rose rapidly from 26% in mid-March to 89% a month later, never falling below 81%. For all its strict adherence to the highly touted safety measure, the body count was still devastating.

In the United Arab Emirates, the face-covering trend line closely mirrored Italy’s. Except for a dip in early April, about 80% of the Arab nation’s citizens masked up for protection. The death rate, though, only measured 35 per 1 million — a small fraction of the Italians’.

In Finland, citizens have hardly bothered to cover their faces. Starting in mid-March, a miniscule 1% of the population did so, rising to 7% by mid-June, when local surveying ceased. Despite their nonchalant attitude toward COVID-19, the Finns registered only 59 deaths per 1 million residents.

Like Finland, nearby Sweden also gave short shrift to face masks, with 1% wearing them in early April, 10% percent by mid-April, then usage wavered between 2% and 6% for the next two months. Unlike their Nordic neighbors, though, Swedes suffered a crushing death rate of 564 per 1 million population.

Results from around the world offer no incontestable indication that masking is a reliable method of preventing COVID infections, a point emphasized in a July 16 opinion piece by infectious disease experts published by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota: “Wearing a cloth mask or face covering could be better than doing nothing, but we simply don’t know at this point.” Over-reliance on mask effectiveness, they warned, could cause individuals to disregard a protective measure with clear efficacy: social distancing.

Other experts come to differing conclusions. A study published June 16 in the health care journal Health Affairs found that following face mask mandates issued in April, 15 states and the District of Columbia experienced a 2% slowdown in the spread of virus infections over a three-week period. “The study provides evidence that states in the U.S. mandating use of face masks in public had a greater decline in daily COVID-19 growth rates after issuing these mandates compared to states that did not issue mandates,” researchers write.

Evidently, face mask effectiveness is hit and miss. Still, Americans could do worse than adopt the pop culture version of the physician’s oath: “First, do no harm.” So long as everyone also remembers to keep their social distance, donning a mask is a powerful symbol of the will to survive.

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