As Biden calls for 100 days of mask-wearing, data suggest most Americans are already doing it

Self-reported mask usage is running above 90% in many parts of the country.

Published: December 10, 2020 12:03pm

Updated: December 14, 2020 11:17pm

Joe Biden's recent calls for Americans to wear masks throughout the first 100 days of his putative Democratic administration are partly belied by growing research indicating that a large majority of U.S. residents are already wearing masks in many to most circumstances. 

Positive COVID-19 tests have skyrocketed throughout the United States over roughly the past two months, reaching record high averages of over 200,000 positive results per day since the beginning of December. 

Experts and policymakers have blamed the rise in positive tests on a variety of factors, including large gatherings, carelessness, indoor restaurant dining and numerous other theories. 

Some officials have also suggested that a lax commitment to mask-wearing is also driving the spike. Among them is Joe Biden, who recently implied that not enough Americans are wearing masks throughout the country. 

During an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, Biden said: "My inclination ... is, on the first day I'm inaugurated, is to say, I'm going to ask the public for 100 days to mask, just 100 days to mask, not forever, 100 days."

"And I think we'll see a significant reduction ... if that occurs, with vaccinations and masking, to drive down the numbers considerably," he claimed. 

Ongoing data suggest vast majority of Americans regularly wear masks

Mask-wearing is a relative novelty in the U.S. compared to some other countries. Most public health officials at the outset of the pandemic this year urged the public to refrain from wearing masks, claiming there was little reason for individuals to don face coverings as a mitigation measure. 

Nearly every public health official since then has flipped on the issue, with authorities over the last nine months making increasingly categorical claims about the efficacy of face masks. CDC director Robert Redfield in September said face masks may be more effective than a COVID-19 vaccine, while some models have estimated that widespread face mask usage in the United States could save tens upon tens of thousands of lives. 

Credible data, however, indicate that the vast majority of Americans are already wearing face masks all or most of the time, complicating implicit assertions that not enough people are covering their faces while out. 

CDC data from surveys conducted over April, May and June indicate that by June of this year, nearly nine out of 10 Americans were using face masks in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. Though the survey did not inquire about the "consistency, adequacy, or frequency" of such a measure, it did show that reported mask usage increased from 78% in April to 88% in June. 

Those increasing numbers notwithstanding, the limitations on that data leave open the possibility that self-reported face mask usage may be obscuring inconsistent and/or incorrect usage of face coverings. Still, more recent and thorough data offer more evidence that regular use of face coverings are widespread throughout the country, in some cases approaching 100% of local populations if the data are any indication. 

The Delphi Research Group—a team out of Carnegie Mellon University "dedicated to developing the theory and practice of epidemic tracking and forecasting"—offers a "COVIDCast" tool that utilizes reports nationwide to estimate, in part, the level of mask-wearing in both states and major metropolitan areas around the United States. 

The data are collected via "a voluntary COVID-19 symptom survey, distributed daily via a partnership with Facebook," the project says. 

The project's findings indicate that, in most states, 90% or more of people presently report "wearing a mask most or all of the time while in public."

The northeastern states of the country have mask usage ranging from 92.5% in Maine to 97% in Massachusetts.

In Washington, D.C., self-reported rates stand at 99%. The West Coast states all have compliance above 93%. Arizona is at 91%. 

Rates are markedly high in numerous metro areas as well, according to the project. In California's Bay Area the rate is above 97%, as is the Boston metro area. The regional rate around Miami is over 96%. Laredo, Tex. has a rate of over 99%, as does Kingston, N.Y. 

Roni Rosenfield, a member of the Delphi group, acknowledged that the data, as is often the case, comes with caveats. 

"It is based on self-reporting," he told Just the News. "People may bias their answer in the more socially-desirable direction (which sadly may depend on their political environment)."

As well, he noted, the masking question "doesn’t get at when or where the mask is used. In low density settings (e.g., a walk alone in the woods) a mask doesn’t make much difference."

Rosenfield argued that mask usage "is just one of many factors that are known to affect transmissibility. "

"Seasonal effects influence transmissibility of most or all respiratory infectious diseases," he said, "with winter almost always increasing transmissibility. The exact mechanism isn’t completely clear, but may include elements of:  longer survival of the virus, more time indoors, less sunlight (and hence less vitamin D production, which is essential for the immune system) and other factors."  

"Whatever the reason, we know that the winter makes things worse," he said. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Monday that Americans should plan to continue wearing masks throughout this winter, and on into the spring and summer of 2021.

Interstate travel businesses already mandate masking

Biden in his conversation with Tapper also said he would mandate masks "in transportation, interstate transportation ... in airplanes and buses, et cetera." But numerous travel industry officials told Just the News that their businesses already impose strict mask mandates on travelers. 

Florencia Cirigliano, a spokeswoman for the Orlando-based bus line RedCoach, told Just the News: "All employees and customers are required to wear a face cover at all times on board, as well as at the Orlando Terminal ... No one will be allowed on board without a face cover." That policy has been in effect since May. 

United Airlines spokeswoman Maddie King said: "We already require all customers and employees to wear masks onboard and in our terminals."

Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods, meanwhile, wrote that the railway company "requires all customers and employees wear a face mask or covering that fully covers the entire mouth and nose, fits snugly against the side of the face, and secures under the chin at all times while onboard and in stations unless actively eating or drinking."

Other travel companies such as Greyhound, American Airlines, Delta Airlines and Southwest Airlines all impose masking requirements on customers. 

It is not clear, then, how broad of an effect Biden's 100-day masking request could have on a country in which masking is in many places already ubiquitous. Biden's press team did not respond to queries about the plan and the data indicating it may be largely superfluous. 

Rosenfield, for one, expressed doubt that masking might be the pandemic panacea that it's at times been presented as. 

"If you can bring transmissibility (as measured by R) to below 1, the epidemic will start subsiding," he said. "If it is above 1, it will go up. Masks help reduce R, but depending on the other factors, that may not be enough."

"My personal assessment (not scientifically proven) is that the current wave is mostly driven by seasonal effects (winter), with a secondary but significant contribution from ‘pandemic fatigue,’ where people are less careful than they used to be (even if they continue to wear masks)," Rosenfield continued. "One common finding in case investigation is that people attend social events like birthdays etc. That’s a recipe for disaster."

"Given these two factors (seasonal effects and pandemic fatigue), mask wearing can make a difference," he added, "but it can’t bring R to below 1."

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