This Is What Happens When Just One Person in Your Home Doesn't Wear a Mask
What science and experts can tell us about the results of ignoring the mask guideline.
While masks weren't recommended for the general public by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) early in the pandemic, the guidelines changed as scientists learned more about the coronavirus—specifically, that it can survive in the air, long enough to infect. Now, the CDC says that everyone except for children under two, individuals with breathing problems, and people who cannot remove masks themselves should be wearing a mask or cloth face covering in public to help stop the spread. But the reality is, not everyone is following this advice. And some of those people resisting the guideline may be living in households with people who are wearing masks religiously. So, what does that mean for everyone involved? Well, consider that a recent study out of China, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, found that a huge majority of coronavirus outbreaks stemmed from homes: 80 percent, in fact. Which means, it's very likely that if you do get the virus, it's from someone you share close quarters with.
Here's what we know: COVID-19 is transmitted through respiratory droplets, which can be dispersed through breathing, speaking, sneezing, or coughing, among other ways. When a carrier covers their nose and mouth, the material traps some of those virus particles. This is important, because many COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic. Even if you feel fine, you could be introducing infected droplets into the air around you. According to the Cleveland Clinic, homemade (i.e. non-surgical) masks are most effective in stopping the spread in this way—less so in preventing the person wearing a mask from inhaling virus particles.
"There is evidence that such masks reduce the exhaled aerosols from infectious, but asymptomatic, individuals," said Raed Dweik, MD, the chairman of Cleveland Clinic's Respiratory Institute. He also points out that a cough or sneeze can send particles out as far as 26 feet. While it's not particularly pleasant to do either of those things in a mask, the barrier it provides can help protect people around you.
While there has been some research showing how much the general public wearing masks slows the spread, there's more to be done. However, there is proof of the impact of personal protective equipment (PPE) in healthcare settings. Per Fast Company, an review conducted by scientists from the Oregon Health & Science University published in the Annals of Internal Medicine determined that the risk of a healthcare worker being infected by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can plummet up to 80 percent if they wear a mask. Speaking to the outlet, senior author of the review, Roger Chou, MD, said that it was "common sense" for the public to adopt this behavior too, despite the lack of data, as any barrier is better than none. He added that homes are comparable to hospitals in that they're closed settings, so it's especially important for everyone in a household with an infected person to be wearing a mask. Close quarters equal a higher risk of transmission.
So, as we wait for more information, why should you be concerned if one person in your household isn't wearing a mask when they go outside? It's true that they may be increasing their chances of becoming infected, though probably only by a small amount. But if they do become infected (especially if they're asymptomatic), it's likely that more people in the home will become infected as well.
A recent study published in BMJ Global Health even found that wearing a mask at home was 79 percent effective at curbing coronavirus transmission among family members. The only catch? You have to be wearing the masks before symptoms emerge in the first person infected in your household. Once someone in your house is symptomatic, chances are you've already been exposed.
And while the primary reason for wearing a mask is to reduce your risk of transmitting the disease to others, wearing a mask also helps normalize the practice. When adults in the home comply, they set an example for kids. (And, frankly, to other adults.) This speaks directly to one of the reasons why certain people rebel against the mask guideline, despite not falling into one of the groups for whom they're not recommended.
Clinical psychologist and professor at New York University's School of Global Public Health, David Abrams, PhD, told CNN that a fear of accepting weakness is preventing some from following the CDC's mask guidelines. Meanwhile, the science shows that wearing a mask isn't something that you do for yourself. It's something you do for others, including the people in your household. And for more information about constructing your own, These Are the Materials You Need to Make the Perfect Face Mask, Scientists Say.