As with nearly everything else having to do with COVID-19, the issue of wearing masks has taken a bit of a political turn. An article in the May 15 Washington Post showed that 73% of self-identified Democrats wore face masks compared to 59% of Republicans.

But neither percentage is likely high enough to make a significant impact on reducing the spread of the virus, according to De Kai, a researcher at the University of California Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute and a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Kai is also the lead researcher in a paper supporting the universal wearing of masks by the population.

“If the majority of people mask up by about day 50 of the outbreak we can greatly curb the spread of the virus,” Kai said in a companion video to the research paper. “If 80 to 90% of the population wear masks we’ll be not only able to flatten the curve, we’ll be able to significantly reduce the spread of the virus and we’ll be able to return to normal sooner than later.”

Kai is in a unique situation given his connections to both Hong Kong and California, and he was quick to notice the difference between the number of cases between Asian countries, where mask use is almost universal, and the United States.

Japan, which by most accounts has done a horrible job managing the pandemic — so much so that a poll released Kyodo news agency on May 10, showed 57.5% of Japanese residents disapproved of the way the government was handling the matter — has had much better results than Florida, with less than half the cases and deaths despite having 105 million more people. The primary difference is Japan is considered one of the countries the paper said had a “masking culture,” meaning masks were common even before COVID-19 and more so now.

The nine “masking culture” countries rank No. 1-8 and No. 11 in terms of slowest daily growth of the virus and not a single one has seen a complete strict lockdown (mass home quarantine), with five of the countries having had partial lockdowns.

Kai’s research found that if 80% of a population wore masks infection rates would be just 8.5% compared to nobody wearing a mask.

Kai’s team used an Artificial Intelligence forecasting model they called “masksim” which shows a random group of 200 people and how many will become infected based on the percentage of people wearing masks. The model also allows you to determine the effectiveness of different types of masks, ranging from N95 masks to homemade masks.

As expected, the higher percentage of people wearing masks, the fewer number of people who were becoming positive. But the most visible evidence occurs when you get an extremely high percentage of the population donning masks.

“Having only 50% of the people wear masks is not good enough to stop the virus from spreading at a high rate,” Kai said. “These modelling results support the need for mass masking as an alternative to continued lockdown scenario.”

There is still disagreement among medical professionals on the use of masks. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing a mask in public, the World Health Organization is a little more mixed in their recommendations.

“The use of a mask alone is not sufficient to provide an adequate level of protection,” WHO states on its website. “Other measures such as physical distancing and hand hygiene should be adopted.”

One reason WHO gives for not fully embracing masks is they may lead to a false sense of security for the wearer, who may engage in activities they should refrain from, and forgo practices such as social distancing.

Locally, the reactions were also mixed.

Emergency room physician Cary Pigman said he was “very skeptical” of the efficacy of wearing masks when the wearer is asymptomatic.

“Masks are most beneficial when the person who is symptomatic is wearing one,” Pigman said. “They keep mucous from spreading. In a high exposure environment such as an ICU room I wear a mask and a face shield.”

Pigman said he and his wife Libby carry a mask with them while traveling and on the go in public.

“We wear the masks if a company prefers us to. For instance, we were getting a car worked on and the staff wanted us to have masks on. We are just being respectful of others.”

Pigman said if a store did not have signage asking for asks to be worn, say in a supermarket, he would not bother wearing one. He said he would keep his distance and felt social distancing is very important.

Jean Deuth is a co-owner of Lake & Land Realty of Highlands in Lake Placid said she is wearing masks out in public.

“I’m wearing masks because it’s considerate of other people,” Deuth said. “I’m not ready to throw caution to the wind yet. We have come so far; it’s just not that big of an inconvenience.”

She said she is wearing masks not because anyone, including the government, is making her. She is wearing them out of consideration of others not out of fear.

Pastors Jesus Perez and Ivette Citron Perez and their entire family will be wearing masks for the foreseeable future. Ivette was released Tuesday from a lengthy and life-threatening hospitalization with COVID-19.

“We are all wearing masks,” Jesus said. “We all are since she has been diagnosed. Her lungs are still week. We need to be sure that she has the antibodies she needs to fully recover. We will do this the safest way possible.”

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