Are Face Masks Really More Effective Than A Vaccine?

The CDC Director made waves Wednesday when he testified in front of a Senate panel Wednesday on the federal government’s plan to rollout a coronavirus vaccine.

While Director Robert Redfield’s assertion that a vaccine likely will not be available until several months into 2021 drew ire from the president, health officials are raising their eyebrows at a different claim.

“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,” Redfield said, because the vaccine likely will not be effective in every person who receives one.

“I find it a little bit challenging when I hear people like the CDC director making statements that the masks are more effective than a vaccine itself… I worry that we’re giving people a false sense of security around masks,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

He told KCBS Radio’s “Ask An Expert” segment Thursday that those statements could make people believe that masks are more protective than they really are and neglect other risk-reducing behaviors.

“They surely can offer protection,” he said. “But please don’t have people then not worry about distancing, because they somehow feel now that they’re COVID protected by having this highly efficient mask.”

Dr. Osterholm says there are several categories to masks: N95 respirators, surgical masks and cloth face coverings. While N95 and surgical masks have been used for years by industrial and healthcare workers and have a body of scientific evidence supporting their efficacy, less is known about cloth masks.

“There still is a relative absence of good research on just how well they protect,” he explained. “But we have every reason to believe they do offer some protection.”

While masks do help reduce the risk of transmission, they are not foolproof. That is why doctors and public health experts say that people should avoid large gatherings, keep their distance from others, stay home if they may be sick or were exposed to the virus and use HEPA air filters indoors in addition to wearing a mask.

“The standpoint here is that we’re layering on protection,” said Dr. Osterholm. “Wear them, but at the same time don’t count on them as being your stopgap.”

Dr. Osterholm says that a mask is certainly no replacement for a vaccine; rather, they are one part of a strategy to slow the spread of the virus.