- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 3, 2021

Masks. Get used to it.

The mask remains politically polarizing, but they aren’t a weird sight anymore. Health experts predict they will be a post-pandemic norm in fighting the flu and even the common cold.

“Maybe the cough is the new smoking-in-public. If you’re doing it without a face mask, maybe you’ll be looked at awkwardly,” said Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and physician of pulmonary and critical care medicine.

Wearing a mask is already a common practice in many East Asian cultures. Transit riders from Seoul to Hong Kong often wear them if they’re coming down with something, a public-health measure borne in part from the SARS outbreak in 2003.

Routine mask-wearing might be asking too much of Americans, a land of rugged individuals. But doctors see ample room for targeted use, especially during flu season.

“I think there will be some carryover among the people who are mask-committed already. They see the logic, they feel the logic of that protection. I think doctors might even recommend it, particularly to high-risk patients,” said William Schaffner, an infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University.

Older adults, people with immune diseases and those undergoing cancer treatment would fit into that category. Experts also said hospitals might also ask visitors to strap on a face covering during flu season.

If nothing else, the ubiquity of masks amid the pandemic should reduce the stigma concerning Americans who always covered their faces due to cystic fibrosis or other serious conditions. In the past, people gave them odd looks.

Today, “they’re not the odd person out when they go out,” Dr. Galiatsatos said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised the use of masks in April after it documented the widespread transmission of the coronavirus by people who don’t show symptoms and probably don’t know they have it.

Masks become a fixture of public life during the COVID-19 fight, especially in grocery stores or other indoor spaces, even if use or compliance with mandates is spotty in places.

President-elect Joseph R. Biden will ask Americans to wear masks in public for at least 100 days after he is inaugurated this month, as the vaccine campaign stretches to mid-2021. He plans to mandate face coverings on federal property and interstate transportation, while leaning on governors to maintain rules within their borders.

Ordering Americans to mask up has stirred controversy across the nation.

A mayor in Kansas said she received threats by phone and email after she was quoted in a USA Today article as supportive of a mask mandate to deal with the surging virus. She resigned.

“Life has dealt out many challenges in our world that have perhaps caused many people to act inappropriately, but I do not feel safe in this position anymore and am hopeful in removing myself, this anger, accusations and abuse will not fall on anyone else and will calm down,” Dodge City Mayor Joyce Warshaw wrote in her resignation letter.

The Trump administration hasn’t endorsed mandates but is asking people to keep up mask-wearing and other precautions while states inoculate their residents.

Human trials showed vaccines from drugmakers such as Pfizer and Moderna were 95% effective and great at staving off disease, but scientists are still collecting data on whether a vaccinated person who does get the virus can transmit it.

Barry Bloom, a professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, noted that a small number of people in the vaccine arm of trials contracted the virus, despite the shots’ “spectacular” efficacy rate.

“Until we really are confident and know enough about whether if you’re vaccinated that — A — you really are protected against infection and for how long, and — B — if you won’t get sick, are you able to shed virus, everybody needs to keep wearing masks, socially distancing and taking public health precautions,” Dr. Bloom said.

Post-pandemic lessons should extend beyond masks. The crisis also has programmed many Americans to wash their hands frequently, stop touching their faces and avoid unnecessary contact with others.

Whether people keep it up, once the coronavirus crisis is under control, could determine whether other pathogens spread freely or not.

“I do think post-COVID, most individuals will be more attuned to the risk of infectious disease and may continue to practice some of the simple hygienic measures they got used to during the pandemic,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “I think there’s a good chance that other respiratory viruses find the post-pandemic environment a little more hardened to their efficient transmission.”

Handshakes, for instance, could go the way of the dodo.

“I think we could probably do away with them,” said Dr. Galiatsatos said. “I think even after the pandemic, it’s too fresh to go ahead and reach out a hand.”

More than half of Americans, 54%, say would be happy “to never shake someone’s hand again” because of their health and safety concerns about the virus, according to a new survey conducted by the Harris Poll for Fast Company, a business publication.

Arthur Caplan, a professor of medical ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, said even if people don’t adopt mask-wearing when they get sick, they might be more willing to stay home.

“I think you’ll see more employers understand you don’t want to have infectious persons in your workplace,” he said. “It kills productivity.”

• Jennifer Harper contributed to this report.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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