How Are Asian Countries Combating the SARS-CoV-2 Variants?

Find out two things you can do to better protect yourself from getting COVID-19.

Posted Feb 28, 2021

If you’re still struggling with whether to wear a mask or not, you’re behind the times, since now the medical community is recommending that you upgrade your mask to an N95 or that you wear two masks together—or “double-mask”—to greatly reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19. With the arrival of the new, more contagious variants from South Africa, Brazil, and the U.K., public health experts are saying it’s more important than ever, since the first two have been found to be up to 50% more transmissible, and the U.K. variant is believed to be up to 70% more.

Face coverings are “the most powerful public health tool” the nation has against the coronavirus, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told lawmakers last September, before the approval of the current vaccines. “We have clear scientific evidence they work, and they are our best defense,” CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said of masks.

 Cynthia Kim Beglin
Masks were popular in Japan pre-pandemic.
Source: Cynthia Kim Beglin

If we look to the Asian countries that have done the best at limiting the spread of the virus—so far including the variants too—we see that their citizens have been wearing medical-grade masks since the beginning of the pandemic. After initial shortages in Asia, countries such as South Korea and Singapore ramped up production of high-quality, medical-grade masks and have been sending them directly to their citizens. With the emergence of the new variants, even European countries are starting to put in place medical mask mandates. Where masks are concerned, the U.S. continues to lag behind in the production, procurement, mandating, and wearing of medical masks.

To be fair, when COVID-19 first arrived, public health experts in many Asian countries already had experience dealing with other coronavirus outbreaks, most recently MERS and SARS, and had already assembled a pandemic toolkit that included medical-grade masks. Their citizens were and are well-versed in the benefits of wearing them—both to protect themselves and their fellow countrymen. They didn’t need to be instructed or convinced to wear high-quality masks, not to mention that mask-wearing was never politicized. In fact, many Asians began wearing high-quality masks at the start of the pandemic to protect themselves and their fellow citizens, even before their governments issued mask mandates. This is in part because the Confucian ethic of responsibility to others is woven into the ancient fabric of their societies.

Prior to COVID-19, masks were already commonplace in many Asian countries, where it was considered polite to wear a medical mask when ill and very impolite not to. In Japan and South Korea, people considered mask-wearing to be hygienic, akin to keeping oneself clean when taking the subway, for example. Many people said they felt underdressed going out on a polluted day without a mask. Some women admitted they wore masks when they were too rushed to apply their makeup properly. And for young people, in particular, mask-wearing had evolved into a fashion statement. This affinity to mask-wearing explains in part why Asian countries have been exponentially more successful than the U.S. and Europe at limiting the spread of COVID-19.

                                                                             -----

Even if you haven’t been good about wearing a mask, or you haven’t been wearing your mask correctly, it’s never too late to start. And if you have been wearing a mask, but it’s not the gold standard N95, or even the KN95, it’s time for an upgrade. With the arrival of the South African, Brazilian, and U.K. variants, it's common sense, now that all three have been detected in our country. Because key mutations in the variants enable them to invade and latch on to your cells more easily, a higher quality mask worn properly will keep out more of the virus. You’ll need this edge, given that a lower viral load of a more contagious variant has a higher chance of infecting you than the more previous variants.

Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health Dr. Ashish Jha, M.D., MPH, said in a January interview with AAMC that “the two highest priorities for policymakers in the coming weeks should be to get as many people vaccinated as soon as possible and to encourage everyone to wear better quality masks.”

The CDC recommends double-masking—wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask—saying studies show this method “can block 92.5% of infectious particles from escaping by creating a tighter fit and eliminating leakage.” The CDC also recommends that one mask have a nose wire for a better fit and suggests wearing a mask fitter over both masks to ensure they fit tight against the sides of your face. Alternatively, they recommend wearing one N95, as long as there are no shortages among medical personnel.

Given that Anthony Fauci recently suggested that we may need to wear masks through 2022, maybe we should try to adopt the Asian mindset that masks are hygienic, or that they are stylish, or that going out without one during a pandemic is the height of rudeness, since if you think about it, it is. After all, every time the virus infects another person, it can mutate into a potentially even more dangerous variant that can go on to sicken and kill many more people. Don't you want to do everything in your power to help end this pandemic? If you do, upgrade your mask or double-mask, get your vaccine as soon as it's your turn, and continue to do everything the CDC recommends until we achieve herd immunity. This includes practicing social distancing, frequent hand washing, getting tested after exposure to a person with COVID-19, and limiting the size of social gatherings with unvaccinated people. Even if you are vaccinated, it is not yet clear that you can't contract an asymptomatic case of COVID-19 and unknowingly spread it to others. Until we have more data, we need to do these things to protect ourselves and others. Take comfort in knowing that as more and more people get vaccinated, things should get much better.

References

Wired – 7-2-2020; NIH/NIAID – 8-2020; ACP (Annals of Internal Medicine) – 1-21-2021; CNBC – 9-16-2020; AAMC – 1-26-2021; CDC – 2-13-2021; Washington Post – 1-28-2021; CNN – 2-7-2021