The European Union (EU) announced yesterday that it’s reopening its borders to individuals from 14 countries (Algeria, Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Rwanda, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia and Uruguay), but America was not one of them. This is the result of the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States surging. However, we aren’t the only ones missing out, so will Russia, China, Brazil and India. The EU plans on reviewing and updating the list of countries every 14 days. According to EU officials, whether or not a country makes the list depends on how well they’re controlling the disease.

If there was a vaccine or medicine that could reduce the transmission of the virus by 50 – 85%, had no significant side effects and was cheap to make, wouldn’t we all be asking where we could get it? There is such a tool…it’s called a face mask. While these are low-tech enough that you can make them at home, they still provide protection. One recent study discovered that countries where masks were widely used soon after the COVID-19 outbreak began have had lower death rates and a shorter outbreak. Countries, such as Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, quickly started implementing mask use, along with other measures, and have reported fewer than 6 deaths per million residents from the virus. Here in the US, the death rate is 379 per million people.

The latest projections from researchers at the University of Washington indicate that US could reach 180,000 deaths from COVID-19 by October. However, the researchers did point out that we could prevent 33,000 of these deaths if at least 95% of people wore a mask. That’s 33,000 of our friends and loved ones who don’t have to die, if we all would wear mask. One study found that in states who mandated wearing masks, there was a more rapid decline in the daily growth rate of COVID-19 cases. So, why won’t people wear them?

Masks have become politicized. This is the result of President Trump refusing to wear a mask and saying that those who do are using it to show their disapproval of him. Many of his supporters now claim that it’s an insult to their personal liberty, which has led other Republican leaders to not want to require them since it would most likely place them on the wrong side of the voters.

The other issue is the idea of “me first.” Those who won’t wear masks say that it’s their right to not wear them in public and that matters more than saving lives. These individuals don’t understand that the mask isn’t to just protect them, but to protect others. For instance, if you’re infected, but don’t have symptoms (asymptomatic) or the symptoms aren’t present yet (pre-symptomatic), you can still spread the disease. Masks help prevent both of these. When higher proportions of people wear masks, there is lower transmission of the virus within a community, which is similar to herd immunity after vaccination. Essentially, masks, and social distancing, are helping to protect everyone until a vaccine and better treatment options are available.

Masks will continue to be important, especially if many Americans don’t get vaccinated once there’s a vaccine available. A poll conducted by CNN found that one-third of individuals said they wouldn’t get the vaccine even if it was widely available and low cost. This is concerning because Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that most likely the effectiveness of the would-be vaccine would be around 70-75%, which under regular circumstances is acceptable. However, couple this with the number of people not willing to get the vaccine, this means that herd immunity isn’t likely to happen.

Per Dr. Fauci, “we have a lot of work to do” to educate people on the truth about vaccines. He states that this is due to “a general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling among some people in this country — an alarmingly large percentage of people, relatively speaking.” To help educate the public, the government is developing a vaccine education program with the goal of including people in communities across the country to encourage buy-in from Americans.