With more than 85 percent of Americans now reported to be masked up – a staggering degree of cooperation on anything in a democracy – and COVID-19 raging at record levels anyway, isn’t it time someone asked a key question about the country’s face-covering policy:
When did medical standard for mask use get overtaken by the National Football League (NFL) standard for mask use?
If you have watched the NFL, America’s most watched TV by a long shot, you’ve been flooded with NFL examples of how to use a mask:
- Put your fingers all over your mask all the time.
- Never wash your hands.
- Take your mask off when you go on the field to enter a scrum of puffing, panting people.
- Put your mask on when you return to the sidelines so you can ignore social-distancing to rub shoulders with teammates.
- Pull your mask down if you want to yell at someone so you can extend the range of droplets, or what used to be called spittle, possibly containing COVID-19-causing SARS-CoV-2 viruses.
- And after the game, cross the field to make sure to shake hands or hug those not in your COVID-19 protective “bubble.”
This has been the most visible example provided Americans through the fall on how to use a mask, and it is a bad one.
Does it matter?
Nobody really knows because not that much is known about the efficacy of masks in general, despite the claims made by modelers as to what a difference they make. But what is known is that masks are a potential tool in the battle against the pandemic.
And when it comes to tools, it matters how they are used. You can use a sharp knife to dice an onion in under a minute or to accidentally cut off your finger.
When medical leaders decided it was time for Americans to mask up to slow the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, they offered masking guidance. It didn’t sound or look at all like the high-visibility masking demonstrations put on by the NFL.
“Here are a few pointers for putting on and taking off a cloth mask,” the Mayo Clinic, one of the countries foremost medical institutions, offered back when health officials were still debating whether masks would make a difference in slowing the spread of SARS-CoV-2:
- Wash or sanitize your hands before and after putting on and taking off your mask.
- Place your mask over your mouth and nose.
- Tie it behind your head or use ear loops and make sure it’s snug.
- Don’t touch your mask while wearing it.
- If you accidentally touch your mask, wash or sanitize your hands.
- If your mask becomes wet or dirty, switch to a clean one. Put the used mask in a sealable bag until you can wash it.
- Remove the mask by untying it or lifting off the ear loops without touching the front of the mask or your face.
- Wash your hands immediately after removing your mask.
- Regularly wash your mask with soap and water by hand or in the washing machine. It’s fine to launder it with other clothes.
“Sanitize your hands” after touching your mask? You certainly didn’t see any NFL coaches or players doing that on TV, but have you seen anyone doing it?
“Remove the mask…without touching the front of the mask or your face?” Right. Standard operating procedure for most people now is to grab the front of the mask, pull it off, and stuff it in their pocket when leaving an indoor space where masks are required.
“Wash your hands immediately after removing your mask?” Certainly there are conscientious Americans, mainly those most worried about catching the disease, who sanitize their hands after removing the mask, and a lot of people who wash their hands once they get home.
But on an hourly to daily basis, there is probably about as much hand washing after mask touching going on in the country in general as on the NFL sidelines. Go watch the employees of your local supermarket. You will see them regularly pulling their masks up and down.
Nobody is doing any hand washing after, and then there’s that last dictate on the use of personal protective equipment (PPE):
“Regularly wash your mask with soap and water.”
There doesn’t appear to have been any research done in this country on how well people are complying with that recommendation, but officials in the United Kingdom looked at the issue in August and concluded only “32 percent are washing their mask after every use, the correct procedure. And even among these people, only 41 percent are washing them at 60 degrees or higher – lower temperatures are not enough to kill viruses like COVID-19.
“This means that, overall, just one in eight (13 percent) of those who wear washable, reusable face masks are actually maintaining them in a way that is helpful to stopping the spread of coronavirus.”
If the Brits are to be believed, this would indicate 87 percent of those wearing washable face masks are doing so for no reason other than virtue signaling or simply to get along with their fellow citizens.
Good, old USA
There is no reason to believe the situation is any better in the U.S. than in England.
The NFL turned masking into a virtue-signaling charade. Given that the players and opposing teams are up close and personal on the field, panting and puffing on each other, what exactly is the point of their wearing face masks while sitting quietly on the sidelines?
Since all are tested regularly for COVID-19, why not dump the mask show, run a public service announcement during games explaining why no one is masked, and then offer advice on how to properly use PPE?
Tools are useless if you don’t know how to use them properly, and the NFL had done nothing but set a bad example for how to use face coverings. Maybe we can blame former President Donald Trump for this, but weren’t there any other adults in the room to suggest to the NFL a better approach?
Is there a Mayo standard that isn’t violated in the NFL’s high-visibility display of how not to use masks? Is there any reasons to be believe masks used badly do much to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, which is in places spreading like wildfire.
One in three residents of Los Angeles Country is now believed to have been infected, according to the LA Times. This despite the fact masks have been the order of the day in California since mid-June.
Public health officials have warned “pandemic fatigue” has caused “an increasing attitude of apathy or resistance toward adherence to nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs),” specifically social distancing and visits to potential SARS-CoV-2 hotspots like bars and restaurants.
Is the same fatigue undermining whatever benefits masks might bring? Has the NFL’s example been adding to a very laidback approach to the use of masks that have made them more ornamentation than PPE?
The questions are hard to avoid, and now California may be dealing with a new, homegrown, more infective strain of SARS-CoV-2 as was recently discovered in the United Kingdom, according to Cedars-Sinai Hospital.
Alaska has already welcomed the British variant of the virus. The California variant can be expected any time. The virus has been rapidly evolving since it first appeared in humans in late 2019. It clearly isn’t going away.
If America is going to stay masked up, it clearly wouldn’t hurt if the NFL, and other sports for that matter, provided a better example of how to do it right.