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Clear evidence masks work, but some experts question if mandates are effective

 Face coverings hang on an outdoor line to dry.
Chris Zúniga
Creative Commons /flickr.com/photos/thepaco/
Face coverings hang on an outdoor line to dry.

Governor Charlie Baker continues to resist calls to bring back a statewide indoor mask mandate. This despite a growing number of communities enacting local requirements, and the Massachusetts Medical Society urging the governor to act.

But there is not necessarily consensus among public health experts about how much impact a statewide rule would have. That's according to a report this week from a team at The Boston Globe, including health reporter Kay Lazar. She explained what they're hearing from researchers.

Kay Lazar, Boston Globe: It's not that they don't think masks work. I think the studies are pretty clear that they really can blunt transmission if used properly. The problem that they're finding is with fatigue — and, to some extent, the fact that people feel like, "We've been through this before. I've been vaccinated now. I'm boosted. Why do I need to do this?" — that people aren't really going to comply with that. And also, for public health officials and the local health departments who are very underfunded and overworked, there is the concern that it would be very hard to enforce.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: And you and your colleagues write that that could be because those same people are staffing booster clinics and still doing vaccination work.

Exactly. And they're really stretched thin and have been. Yes, they're going to get new federal funding through the ARPA funds, through the state. But that hasn't flowed yet, and they are very much prioritizing vaccinating, boosting and testing, too.

That was the message that the governor focused on recently in a press conference. Really, the testing after the vaccination and the booster. That advice is what some of the medical professionals that you interviewed talked about. Could you give me a couple examples of their range of responses about masks?

Sure. Again, all of them are in agreement that masks certainly are a good tool, a good intervention, in their words, to help slow down transmission. The question is whether you can convince a large enough segment of the population to do this.

And particularly, as Joe Allen from Harvard told my colleague, that, we as a society, and in many, many communities and across the country were sounding the alarms, rightfully so, early in the pandemic that we need to do this. And that after vaccination, we can take them off — this was last year or earlier this year, even the CDC said you can start unmasking. And then, if you remember in Provincetown in the summer, there was a huge outbreak. And that's when the CDC and others realized that COVID can be transmitted between vaccinated people.

And so, there is this thinking that some people feel that the message needs to be clear, but it's really hard to keep that sort of "code red level" of preparedness and emergency up all the time. And so, we need to sort of pick and choose.

So with leading doctors and scientists offering disparate messages, what are folks supposed to take away from this report?

Well, I'm hoping that they take away that masks do work, and I think we tried to make that very clear in the story that masks are incredibly helpful in blunting the transmission, but that at this time there seems to be some sentiment that it's very hard to convince people en masse to do that.

So really the priority now has kind of shifted to getting as many people as possible vaccinated and especially getting their booster shot when eligible, because omicron seems to be blunted a little bit in the transmission, if you can be boosted too. And also testing, a lot of testing to see that if you are positive, you do test positive, that you stay away and quarantine. So those are the three tools that really seem to be being pushed now, but in no way is anyone suggesting that masks do not work. They do.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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