Masks may offer better protection against COVID-19 than any potential vaccine: Experts

When we do have a vaccine, it likely won't be 100% effective, doctors say.

ByDr. Leah Croll
September 18, 2020, 6:02 AM

As America waits for a COVID-19 vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's director Robert Redfield said we all might be better protected by simply continuing to wear masks. His comments drew criticism from President Donald Trump, who is touting the pending vaccine as a panacea for the pandemic.

"I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine," said Redfield, in testimony given to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

But later Wednesday, Trump said Redfield was "confused" and mistaken when he spoke about the importance of wearing masks. It was not the first time Trump has cast doubt on the CDC's mask recommendations. At an ABC News town hall Tuesday, he claimed, "There are a lot of people that think that masks are not good."

But five experts interviewed by ABC News all agreed with Redfield, saying that masks are, in fact, our strongest weapons against the pandemic.

During his Senate testimony, Redfield explained that a vaccine might not be 100% effective at producing an immune response strong enough to stave off infection. Masks, however, provide an evidence-backed protective barrier.

"I agree with Dr. Redfield. At best, a vaccine will be about 75% effective against moderate to severe disease," Dr. Paul Offit, a professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, told ABC News. "A mask, on the other hand, if used correctly and combined with social distancing, will be far more effective than that."

Dr. Paul Goepfert, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Vaccine Research Clinic, said, "I think the confusion here is that we do not know the efficacy of the COVID vaccines yet, nor how quickly available they will be if found to be effective, nor the percent of the population willing to get the vaccine. Since we do not know any of that yet, masks are a better solution."

The physical barrier that masks provide eliminates the ability of the virus to move from person to person, Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said. This means that if masks are implemented widely and consistently, they will dampen the spread of COVID-19 significantly.

"The first-generation COVID vaccines are not expected to render all vaccines impervious to infection -- as they won't be like the current measles vaccine -- but to modify illness so that severity and need for hospitalization is lower. So, even among the vaccinated, there will still be infections that occur, they will just be less frequent and less severe," he said.

PHOTO: People wearing face masks walk on a pedestrian street in Lyon, France, on Aug. 22, 2020, on the first day of mandatory mask wearing in parts of the city center.
People wearing face masks walk on a pedestrian street in Lyon, France, on Aug. 22, 2020, on the first day of mandatory mask wearing in parts of the city center. Masks are obligatory to curb the spread of COVID-19 caused in France in open areas of some cities, as well as on public transport and in enclosed spaces such as shops, banks and government offices.
Philippe Desmazes/AFP via Getty Images

Still, public health experts stress that vaccines are indeed essential for fighting off the pandemic, even if we don't know how effective they will be yet.

"An effective vaccine that is readily available and utilized by the majority of the population is the single best method that humans have developed to prevent disease -- other than providing clean water," said Goepfert.

However, "Based on the current information about COVID-19, we know that wearing a mask is very effective in slowing the spread of the disease," said Dr. Simone Wildes, an infectious disease specialist at South Shore Health and an ABC News Medical Unit contributor. While we wait to learn more about COVID-19 vaccine efficacy and distribution, "both measures will be equally important," she added.

"The bottom line is we don't know what is more effective without data about the Phase 3 of the vaccine trials," said Dr. John Brownstein, an ABC News contributor and epidemiologist at Boston Children's Hospital.

"Without that information, we must still consider masks one of our most important currently available public health interventions," Brownstein said. "When a vaccine does become available, we should not consider this an either/or, but the synergy of two innovations creating the best possible combination of disease protection."

Leah Croll, M.D., is a neurology resident at NYU Langone Health and a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

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