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Mask Policies And Advice Shifted Quickly In 2020 As Pandemic Took Hold

WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

One thing 2020 will be remembered for: the emergence of the face mask as a way to help protect against COVID-19.

Facemarks masks first became ubiquitous across Asia around 2003 during the SARS epidemic. Jian Yu Hou has lived in the U.S. since 2015 and has authored articles on face masks for Chinese periodicals.

She was puzzled that Americans didn't embrace masks early on when news of the pandemic first came out of China. She says Chinese living in the U.S. had already begun stocking up.

"In January in New York City when I, when I told my New Yorker friends to buy some face masks, and they said, 'Oh, it's already sold out in Manhattan', and I told them, 'hey, try to get some in Brooklyn' but Brooklyn also sold out."

Masks of various types from simple paper surgical to the N95 respirator variety all were in short supply by mid-March.

State Assemblywoman Pat Fahy of Albany said at the time she hadn't worn one... yet.

"Somebody kindly gave me an extra last night and I felt a little guilty taking it, but I'm going to have it just in case because I'm exposed to so many people still, as I go into my office and as we go into work."

Governor Andrew Cuomo said during one of his early pandemic briefings:

"You know when the CDC starts putting our guidance, you can use a scarf as a mask. You know, it's time to make more masks."

Early on, public health officials were trying to conserve masks, which were in short supply, for frontline medical workers. Albany County Health Commissioner Dr. Elizabeth Whalen said the public didn’t necessarily need masks.

"No at this point, I still would not recommend individuals wear surgical masks that are not symptomatic, for a multitude of reasons."

WAMC Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas wears a facemask in March 2020.
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
WAMC Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas wears a facemask in March 2020.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal was reporting U.S. workers who elected to wear masks on the job were meeting resistance. Some employers warned employees masks would scare people.

Fahy, Cuomo, Whalen and most of the rest of us now wear masks in addition to practicing social distancing whenever we venture out.

Concerns over coronavirus resulted in drastic actions like the lockdowns that shuttered "non-essential businesses" along with restaurants, casinos and gyms in hopes of staving off the spread of the virus, and irrational behavior of the kind that led to a nationwide toilet paper shortage.

Xu Hong is a reporter based in Shanghai who weathered the COVID-19 siege in China during its peak last January. She religiously followed Governor Cuomo's press conferences, and told WAMC she thought lockdown was essential. As 2020 drew to a close, she says life in China, where some cities endured 10-week lockdowns, has returned to normal.

"You asked 'what is different now?' Our mental state. You know our government is keeping the people posted about the latest situation about the virus. For example, how many people are infected, how many people were cured. Things like that. Before when we know people were getting infected again, we were so nervous because were afraid that the situation, we'd lost control again. But now we are not worried about that anymore."

During the spring of 2020, #StayHome became a popular hashtag on social media as Americans were urged to isolate themselves.
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
During the spring of 2020, #StayHome became a popular hashtag on social media as Americans were urged to isolate themselves.

China has confirmed its first case of a new coronavirus variant that was recently detected in Britain, and there are reports the government has ordered additional measures to prevent a resurgence, including discouraging Lunar New Year travel.

There’s another worry: New York state’s plastic bag ban took effect on March 1st, and by the end of May environmentalists were sounding a more fervent alarm about "coronavirus pollution." Discarded face masks and latex gloves began appearing on city streets and in water bodies.

Environmental watchdog OceansAsia claims more than 1.5 billion masks are believed to have entered oceans in 2020.

The group says masks pose a significant threat to marine life. They say thin fibers of plastic used in disposable masks called polypropylene can remain in the ocean for hundreds of years, threatening fish and even polluting the air.

Former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck said in May that discarded masks and gloves were showing up in alarming numbers on New York streets,

"Please do not litter your masks and your gloves. All of that is eventually going to get into our rivers and lakes and eventually the ocean."

As the COVID-19 vaccine is distributed in waves, masks will remain a part of American life for some time. President-elect Joe Biden will ask Americans to commit to 100 days of wearing masks as one of his first acts when he is sworn in January 20th.

French video shot in the Mediterranean Sea shows masks and gloves littering the seabed.
Credit Opération Mer Propre via Facebook
French video shot in the Mediterranean Sea in early 2020 shows masks and gloves littering the seabed.

Get the latest public health information on COVID-19 from CDC: https://www.coronavirus.gov

Get the latest research information from NIH: https://www.nih.gov/coronavirus

Find NCBI SARS-CoV-2 literature, sequence, and clinical content: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sars-cov-2/

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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