On the eve of our nation’s Independence Day, let’s talk about masks. US Surgeon General Jerome Adams stated this week, “This mask, this face covering, actually is an instrument of freedom for Americans if we all use it.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote, “We must have no stigma, none, about wearing masks when we leave our homes and come near other people. Wearing simple face coverings is not about protecting ourselves, it is about protecting everyone we encounter.”
President Trump said in an interview with Fox Business on Wednesday, “I’m all for masks.” Yesterday, Fox News aired a public service announcement with Sean Hannity encouraging viewers to wear masks. And effective today, Texas joins a growing number of states requiring masks in public.
Answering four medical objections to wearing masks
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated recently that thirty-three thousand lives could be saved if at least 95 percent of Americans wore masks in public. Opponents, however, claim that masks are more harmful than helpful. Let’s consider their objections.
First, some claim that masks decrease oxygen levels and increase carbon dioxide levels for those who wear them. Dr. Russell Buhr, a pulmonary and critical care physician at UCLA Health, disagrees. He explains that gas molecules are much smaller than the pores in the material, meaning that the mask does not keep oxygen or carbon dioxide from moving through it. “Medical professionals wear these masks for hours a day for entire careers,” he notes.
A second objection is the claim that masks increase our risk to viruses by triggering dormant retroviruses in the body which take advantage of immune systems compromised by mask-wearing. But Dr. Bruce Polsky, chairman of Medicine at NYU Winthrop Hospital, says that humans do not typically have such retroviruses. And, as we have seen, wearing masks does not compromise our health.
A third objection is that masks cannot prevent the virus from entering our bodies, comparing the virus to a mosquito going through a chain-link fence. However, masks are not designed to stop the virus from entering a person’s respiratory system but to keep it from spreading to other people.
As Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University notes, droplets that spread the virus to others are much larger than the virus itself. Masks stop the spread of these droplets through sneezing, coughing, or speaking, making others safer, a fact documented by this scientific article as well.
A fourth claim is that the effectiveness of masks has not been studied. However, a peer-reviewed scientific article in the medical journal The Lancet found that masks and social distancing are effective in controlling the spread of the virus. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that a person generated hundreds of droplets by speaking, but almost all of the droplets were blocked when the mouth was covered with a washcloth.
Another simulation showed that, without a mask, droplets produced during coughing can travel up to twelve feet. This distance is reduced to 2.5 inches by wearing a cotton mask and eight inches by wearing a cone-style mask.
In my work as Resident Scholar for Ethics with Baylor Scott & White Health, the largest nonprofit healthcare system in Texas, I have participated in board-level discussions of this issue. Our physicians strongly urge everyone to wear masks to stop the spread of the virus.
“Through love serve one another”
Masks are so important to stopping the spread of the virus that wearing them could have enormous financial consequences as well. A recent report from Goldman Sachs projects that a nationwide policy of mask-wearing could save our economy from a 5 percent hit to our GDP. Such a policy could substitute for strict lockdown measures that would otherwise cost us $1 trillion.
For Christians, mask-wearing is also an expression of obedience to God’s commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Even if, in spite of the evidence, you do not believe wearing a mask will protect others, know that those around you are likely to disagree. In this context, as Paul noted, we should defer to the wishes of others (1 Corinthians 8).
Some will say that wearing masks violates their civil rights. However, as Christians, we should use our freedom to serve: “You were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).
In a week focused on character and its consequences, this topic illustrates an important principle: our character affects everyone we influence. Joseph’s godliness (cf. Genesis 39) enabled God to use him to save the Jewish nation through whom the Messiah would come one day. Daniel’s character (Daniel 6:4–5) and courage (v. 10) led the Babylonian king to glorify God across the nation (vv. 25–27).
The importance of godly character does not mean we must be perfect to be useful. David sinned horrifically, but he repented and returned to his Lord (cf. 2 Samuel 12). Peter denied Jesus three times, but he repented and was restored to his ministry (John 21). Paul persecuted Christians so violently that he later called himself the “foremost” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), but he repented and became God’s apostle to the Gentile world (cf. Romans 11:13).
How to make “progress in perfection”
Wearing masks during a pandemic is just one way our personal decisions have an impact on others. Any time we choose to put others first, we obey the One who taught us, “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).
This statement by the sixteenth-century theologian, St. John of the Cross, struck me recently: “If you do not learn to deny yourself, you can make no progress in perfection.”
How much “progress in perfection” will you make today?