“The basic truth is that masks work,” said Syra Madad, senior director of the systemwide special pathogens program at New York City Health + Hospitals. “Whether you’re talking about Covid-19 or other respiratory viruses like RSV and flu, wearing a mask will help protect you against all these respiratory viral illnesses.”
Other public health measures, such as hand washing, surface wiping and air filtration, are also important to limit the spread of respiratory viruses. Special emphasis has been placed on vaccination, especially by the White House and CDC, and you should absolutely get a flu shot and the latest Covid-19 booster if you haven’t already. But vaccines are best thought of as protection against severe illness if you do get infected with a virus. Masks are the first line of defense against transmission.
“Frankly, to prevent transmission, neither antivirals nor vaccines have done a great job,” said Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease fellow and postdoctoral researcher at Stanford Medicine. “What prevents transmission is actually masking and likely air filtration.”
When weighing when and where to mask, Dr. Madad recommended paying attention to the “Three Cs”: close contact, crowded spaces and confined places with poor ventilation. The experts urged wearing masks while traveling on planes and public transportation, and they strongly suggested doing it while out shopping for groceries and gifts. For smaller holiday parties with people you know, it’s fine to forgo masks if guests test beforehand and stay home if they’re feeling rundown.
Realistically, not everyone in the United States — or a certain city — will wear a mask. In fact, you might find yourself the only person in a store or on a plane who’s wearing one. Don’t let that discourage you. For one thing, remember that no one is thinking about you as much as you think they are. In social psychology, this is called the spotlight illusion, said Gretchen Chapman, a professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. “I may feel that everyone’s staring at me because I’m wearing a mask, but chances are that’s like the 11th thing on their list to worry about,” she said.
What’s more, Dr. Chapman said, “There are lots of situations in life where we do something that makes us feel awkward, but if we think it’s important enough, we do it anyway.”
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