America's Cost Effective COVID-19 Solution? Masks for All

By:  Bernie Sanders and Andy Slavitt; Masks for All

In the midst of this unprecedented global pandemic, it is clearer than ever that not only is health care a human right, but so too are the resources to protect your health and the health of your family and neighbors.

That's why we are urgently calling for a simple, common-sense, practical and inexpensive way to protect Americans during the coronavirus pandemic: Masks for All. Our goal must be to make high-quality masks available on an equitable basis to every single person in this country at no cost. Next week, one of us will introduce legislation to do just that.

The science is clear: Wearing a mask not only saves lives, but the widespread use of masks will get Americans back to work sooner and reunite families who have stayed apart. Hopefully, this legislation will even help counter some of the confusion and misinformation over mask-wearing.

As the United States reports a record numbers of new cases, research about mask-wearing from around the world and here in the United States shows that masks play a vital role in decreasing the spread of Covid-19, because when the virus can't easily find hosts, it dies out. South Korea, one of the more successful countries to date, began the process of procuring high-quality masks in late February and provided them affordably to its citizens by partnering with pharmacies across the country. Additionally, Taiwan, the Czech Republic, Germany, Vietnam and dozens of other countries have demonstrated that as mask wearing became commonplace in public, Covid-19 cases were contained. And only when the virus is contained can the economy finally go back to normal.

University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects that widespread use of masks in the United States could save 40,000 lives by November 1. And mask-wearing can help slow our growing economic crisis as well: One estimate says that widespread use of masks could be worth up to $1 trillion to our economy by preventing shutdowns and getting people back to work earlier.

Unfortunately, it is absolutely clear that we cannot wait for this administration to take action. So, as a first step, the Masks for All legislation will instruct the Trump administration to acquire and deliver three high-quality, reusable masks to every person in the country with the best available designs that can be manufactured.

They would be delivered via US mail, made available free locally at testing sites, post offices and pharmacies, as well as distributed in collaboration with state and local governments to homeless shelters, jails, detention centers and other congregate-care settings.

Priority would, of course, continue to go to frontline health care workers and to essential workers, as well as communities hardest hit by the coronavirus.

In addition, as health care professionals see new shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), this legislation directs the government to produce and provide the needed surgical masks and N-95 respirators to all health providers in the country.

To make enough high-quality, non-medical masks for all Americans, this legislation also requires the administration to invoke the Defense Production Act, which was written explicitly for these purposes. This will mandate that manufacturers put in place the additional capacity necessary to meet the needs of the public and provide assistance to companies who want to begin producing masks or scale up production. Communities hard hit by job losses could and should benefit greatly from these new employment opportunities.

Masks for All will not only increase the availability of masks, but also the quality. The ultimate goal, which we hope can be achieved within months, is to get every American a mask that is high quality, comfortable, easy-to-fit and washable for continued use without losing the capacity to keep the virus at bay. And these masks should protect both the wearer as well as the people they come into contact with.

During a public health crisis, mask wearing is often met with skepticism by some of the public. However, dating back more than a century, masks have been a vital part of protecting public health, including pneumonia epidemics, the 1918 flu and the 2003 SARS outbreak. Initial public uncertainty began with changing guidelines from the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

President Donald Trump has recklessly made masks a political football. But public surveys suggest that Americans, by a good-sized majority, are very open to wearing masks. This bill would help make clear the public health necessity for masks once and for all.

One wouldn't think a simple piece of facial covering could be so important. But throughout modern times, some of the greatest life-saving inventions have not been from pharmaceutical companies but have been low-tech, common-sense solutions like clean water and clean air. Similarly, a low-cost mask, when worn by everyone, provides the same common sense, low cost and life-saving impact.

We must act with urgency, using the next package of Covid-19 relief coming up this month l and take immediate advantage of the Defense Production Act. Every day we delay, we make it that much harder to find the raw material and manufacturing capacity to make the masks we need. The cost is a very modest investment compared to the number of lives saved and the positive impact on the economy.

We are all in this together. During World War II, factories across the country were given the opportunity to play a role in winning the war. Today, US manufacturers and workers could play an equivalent, vital role in winning the war against the pandemic, and ensuring a healthy society for all.