- President Joe Biden, sworn in on Jan. 20, has asked that everyone in the country wear a mask for the first 100 days of his presidency to slow the spread of COVID-19.
- Experts say that if the country complies with that request, it will significantly reduce COVID-19 cases.
- However, they note that the impact may take weeks to materialize, so people may be discouraged and stop wearing masks.
President Joe Biden has implemented a series of executive actions aimed at curbing the COVID-19 pandemic, including increasing mandated mask-wearing and increasing vaccinations.
Unveiling his national strategy on COVID-19, Biden last week signed 10 executive orders to help bring the COVID pandemic under control.
“Our national strategy is comprehensive. It’s based on science, not politics. It’s based on truth, not denial, and it’s detailed,” Biden said last week.
The executive actions expand on the president’s promise to mandate mask-wearing on federal property. Mask-wearing will now also be compulsory for those traveling interstate on planes, trains, and buses as well as in airports.
Biden has also asked the public to wear masks for the first 100 days of his presidency.
“We’re going to take steps necessary now to slow the spread of the disease as well. One of our 100 day challenges is asking the American people to mask up for the first 100 days,” he said.
“By wearing a mask from now until April, we save 50,000 lives… so I’m asking every American to mask up,” he added.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, says the orders surrounding masks are as significant symbolically as they are practical.
“(President Biden is) trying to normalize mask-wearing, trying to send a signal. He’s also trying to federalize the response to COVID, which the previous administration had left to the various states. It’s a symbolic matter, but it’s also something that’s important in real-time,” Schaffner told Healthline.
“He and his team will model wearing-masks, so that will change the whole tenor, the whole environment,” he added. “If people in authority, people who are admired, model the appropriate behavior, I think we can slowly, slowly persuade people who have been reluctant or even disdainful of wearing masks to join the rest of us.”
But getting the public to universally wear masks, experts say, won’t be easy.
A recent study from the University of Southern California found that in early December, two-thirds of Americans reported being in close contact with someone outside their house. However, only half said they wore masks.
“We’re a very divided country, and I think the response will be divided. These are attitudes that are really baked in, and changing attitudes, feelings, emotions… is a large task,” Schaffner said.
Dr. Anne Liu is an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care in California.
She said the amount of opposition to public health recommendations has been disheartening.
“I’m feeling a little discouraged by the amount of not just disregard for public health recommendations but also the amount of intensity people have expressed against public health recommendations,” Liu told Healthline.
“I’m really worried about how long this could continue to drag out because of these really intrenched beliefs now,” Liu added.
“But I hope there is some margin there. I hope there is some percentage of people in different places who will change their behavior, who are not so entrenched, who will hear consistent messaging and take that to heart,” she said.
Clear public health messaging, experts say, is crucial in securing cooperation from the public.
“The messaging has really changed throughout the pandemic, and it’s been very confusing, so I think what this is, is an opportunity to reset communication of optimal prevention strategies. Masking for the first 100 days is kind of catchy and may be useful,” Dr. Dean Blumberg, head of pediatric infectious disease at the University of California Davis, told Healthline.
“What I’m hoping is maybe if we do focus on masks and maybe not focus on all these other complicated rules, maybe that will be simpler, maybe that will be a more effective communication tool,” he added.
Blumberg said that if the public were to mask up for 100 days, there would be a significant reduction in COVID-19 cases.
“There’s no question in my mind that if people follow the recommendations for masking and social distancing, that we could get this virus under control without a vaccine,” he said. “We’ve seen this in other communities that have gotten this under control when there was buy-in from the public with masking and social distancing.”
Part of the problem in getting people to stick with mask-wearing for an extended period, Liu said, is that the impact of mask-wearing won’t be immediately obvious.
“You would see a really dramatic drop in cases, followed several weeks later by a drop in hospitalizations, followed several weeks later by a drop in the death rate. It’s all delayed, which makes it much harder for people to see the impact of their actions,” she said.
A decrease in COVID-19 cases would also mean businesses and schools could reopen sooner.
Liu said Biden’s plan is something that could have been implemented months ago.
“From the very beginning, we have been about 6 to 8 weeks from getting control of the virus, and we haven’t done it,” she said. “It’s not that we don’t know how to do it, and it’s not that we don’t have sufficient knowledge. A lot of the epidemiology and transmission dynamics is now quite well understood, or sufficiently so that we know what we need to know in order to control the virus.”
Along with increasing mask-wearing, Biden has laid out a plan to administer 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations in 100 days and increase vaccination centers within the first months of his term.
“Our plan starts with mounting an aggressive, safe, and effective vaccination campaign to meet our goal of administering 100 million shots in our first 100 days in office. This will be one of the greatest operational challenges our nation has ever undertaken, and I’m committed to getting it done,” Biden said last week.
“We’ll move heaven and earth to get more people vaccinated for free and create more places for them to get vaccinated, to mobilize more medical teams to get shots in people’s arms, and to increase vaccine supply and get it out the door as fast as possible,” he said.
Schaffner says 100 million shots in 100 days is an aspirational goal, but it can be accomplished.
“It is very challenging just in its magnitude. We’ve never tried to vaccinate 70-plus percent. Dr. [Anthony] Fauci even is asking for 80 percent of the adult population of the U.S. to be vaccinated. Particularly so because this new strain is highly transmissible. The more contagious the strain is, the higher proportion of people we have to vaccinate in order to achieve herd immunity. So the challenge keeps growing,” he said.
If Biden’s vaccination plan works, life in the United States may return to pre-COVID normalcy by the end of the year, Schaffner says.
“If we are successful in vaccinating a very high proportion of the adult population in the U.S., I think we could get back to a semblance of normal by September/October of 2021. That’s aspirational, but it’s possible,” he said.
If that happens, it will be in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s response to the COVID pandemic.
“The previous administration really wanted to just ignore COVID. It never understood COVID, it felt annoyed by COVID and did not wish to deal with it in a straightforward, scientific, coherent fashion. The United States’ response to COVID has been flawed, inadequate, uncertain, full of politics, and bereft of science from the beginning. And it’s been left largely to the states, which has resulted in all kinds of confusion,” he said.
Schaffner, who received his second dose of the COVID vaccine last week, is cautiously optimistic. He says the fact that the Biden administration has appointed Dr. Anthony Fauci as COVID chief medical adviser and reinstated the United States as part of the World Health Organization is promising.
“It is hugely important because the less politics you have, the more people will have confidence in it. We have the wherewithal and now the determination and good planning as a consequence of that determination to really address COVID,” he said.
“The current configuration of the administration’s plan and their advisory groups and the people who are appointed to key positions have the confidence of the public health and the infectious disease community,” Schaffner added.
Biden says it may take time, but the United States will overcome the pandemic.
“We didn’t get into this mess overnight, it’s going to take months for us to turn things around,” the president said.
“We will get through this; we will defeat this pandemic. And to a nation waiting for action, let me be the clearest on this point: Help is on the way,” he added.