Too much debate has focused on whether individuals should wear face masks to stop the spread of COVID-19 — and not enough on what types of masks work best.

Yes, New Mexicans should continue wearing masks considering the surge in virus cases and colder temperatures that send people indoors. Duh. Mask-wearing is required as part of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public health order on the pandemic, but at this point, that order is almost beside the point. Wear masks because science is showing they work.

But there can be more to masks than what meets the eye.

Just this week, the first-of-its-kind global study published in the British Medical Journal concluded mask-wearing is the single most effective public health measure at tackling COVID-19, reducing incidence by 53 percent. The study should settle the debate, although given the toxic nature of the mask debate, it likely won’t ever end.

Recent research is helping individuals and public health officials learn not just that masks work, but which masks work best.

Researchers in Bangladesh studied mask-wearing under various conditions in different villages to assess the impact of community-mask wearing, concluding: “There is clear evidence that community mask-wearing can reduce COVID-19.”

The study also made this observation: “The effects were substantially larger in communities where surgical masks were distributed.”

Even better, the study found the right interventions can increase mask-wearing. Those include distributing masks at no cost, offering information about the benefits of masks, reinforcing the need for masks and having respected community leaders model the practice.

It seems clear that in New Mexico and the country, leaders should do more to get the right masks to people.

For the best protection — necessary with more contagious variants — people should wear at minimum, surgical masks, and N95 masks with a tight seal when possible.

And here’s where governments, state, federal and local, can do more than issue mandates.

Buy masks and make them widely available, especially for people who don’t have extra cash. The N95s are fairly inexpensive now — $1 or so a mask — but for people with large families or who have to change masks frequently, those dollars can add up.

Getting the best masks in the hands of more people changes the equation. That, along with continued vaccinations, can reduce the spread of COVID-19 this winter. As a plus, we’ll see fewer cases of flu and pneumonia, relieving an overburdened health system.

It’s easy, perhaps too easy, to call for people to simply wear a mask. Research shows government and health officials need to redouble their own efforts. Wearing a mask is good, but they need to use the bully pulpit and move their own bureaucracies to get the best kind of preventive medicine into people’s hands — or in this case, over their faces.

Public health interventions can protect the community while more individuals get vaccinated or receive booster shots. The research is clear. Masks work, but some masks work better than others. By obtaining, distributing and using the best equipment available, we can put the pandemic behind us.

(8) comments

Chris Mechels

Finally, a sensible bit on masks. NM really needs to stop using "face coverings" and move to N95s. The Governor wears an N95, but her guidance is still "face coverings". One of the many cases where action belies her words.

Dennis McQuillan

For the 21 months, I have been wearing an N-95 overlain by a surgical mask that I believe provides excellent protection for myself and for the people around me. Fortunately, just before Covid hit, I bought a box of N-95's from a home improvement store to clean up mouse droppings in my garage.

Lupe Molina

The fact that we this country did not use it's industrial and economic might to drop 10 N95 masks on every doorstep is just so wrong. It's the failure of two presidents and would have saved countless lives.

Dennis McQuillan

I wish you had been advising the White House for the last 2 years, Lupe. A box of N-95's and a box of hand sanitizer at every doorstep, along with executive leadership that these measures are patriotic, would have saved countless lives.

Mike Johnson

Well said Lupe, the correct masks, worn correctly, would have made a big difference. As this medical research shows......

Dennis McQuillan

The only so-called debate about the effectiveness of wearing masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19 has been ideological, not scientific. The British Medical Journal paper provides yet the latest confirmation. Masks, social distancing, frequent hand washing, and vaccination are our best weapons to fight the spread of this deadly disease.

Keith Howell

All valuable comments. But one of the many things we have learned is that the US was not prepared for a pandemic even though there were multiple warnings. While I agree with the appropriateness of sending N95 masks and hand sanitizer to all US households, the reality was that we did not have those in the early phases. And the need to prioritize limited materials meant getting effective masks first to medical personnel. We were forced to wait until later in the pandemic to receive masks from China and Korea. And that was also the situation with Personal Protective Equipment for medical personnel and again with ventilators etc for treating COVID patients. Fortunately the medical research community had been proceeding in the development of new techniques to produce effective vaccines. In the meantime, thousands died in the world’s wealthiest country because elected national, state and local political leaders lied to their constituents and refused to act on their very basic responsibility to protect all. We can all hope the next viral threat will be controlled quickly because we learned from the current pandemic.

Joe Brownrigg

There WAS a national strategic plan for a pandemic. It was scrapped by the federal government and by many state governments. The pandemic quickly became an ideological battle, not a public health issue.

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