NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen dons a mask this month during a coronavirus media briefing. (Image via NC DPS) NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen
NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen dons a mask this month during a coronavirus media briefing. (Image via NC DPS)

Masks protect against the spread of the coronavirus, but public officials are still trying to convince skeptics. 

Want to get people to wear masks? Be nice about it.  

Shame, ridicule, and confrontation aren’t going to convince those that view mask-wearing as an affront to their personal freedoms to suddenly don a mask, said Gavan Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

They’ll instead double down in their anti-mask stances, he said, during a virtual conversation he and other experts at Duke University had with reporters this week. 

“Many people perceive that some of the public health guidelines are direct threats to their freedoms and, as a result, this motivational state kicks in where they’ll go to great lengths to not follow those guidelines,” said Fitzsimons, who estimates as much as a third of the population has this virulent reaction in similar situations. 

RELATED: How NC Plans to Keep Black, Latino Communities Safe from COVID-19

His suggestion is this: Make people feel as if they have a choice and provide personal motivations for wearing a mask. Emphasize how they can personally benefit from wearing a mask – whether it’s for personal protection or keep a favorite business or restaurants from being closed or fined. 

“Simple things like, ‘if you would like to keep this restaurant open, then please choose which of these three types of face coverings would be best for you,’” Fitzsimons said. 

More evidence pointing to masks 

Widespread use of masks are being held by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the most effective ways to stop COVID-19.

The CDC now recommends that all wear masks when out and about, as it’s believed the virus can be spread through aerosols in the air by asymptomatic people. 

That’s a change from the early days in the crisis this spring, when the CDC was only urging people who were sick to wear masks. Many public health officials also initially urged the public to hold off on buying masks in bulk to preserve limited supplies for medical and essential workers. 

But there’s been a reversal on those recommendations. 

Research is increasingly showing that masks that fit property can protect the wearer as well. One recent scientific study published in the scientific journal Nano Letters found cloth masks protect wearers from 30 to 50% of airborne viruses. And in a much-publicized study of two infected Missouri hairdressers, none of their 139 clients came down with the virus with both hairdressers and most of the clients wearing masks.

The truly mask-resistant appear to be a shrinking minority as more Americans see how dangerous, contagious and unabating the novel coronavirus can be, with several states seeing cases and deaths spike after initially reopening their business. 

In fact, three-quarters of Americans now favor requirements to wear masks in public, according to an Associated Press-Norco Center for Public Affairs Research poll released Thursday. [The same poll found that two-thirds of people were dissatisfied with President Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis.]

And 86% of people say they are wearing masks when leaving their homes, compared with just 73% who were doing that in May. 

In North Carolina, COVID-19 cases have been on a slow but steady uptick, spreading primarily in younger people at this point but killing mostly older residents. Gov. Roy Cooper issued a mask mandate on June 24, and those public schools that do have in-person classes will need to make sure both students and teachers wear masks. 

On Thursday, the state reported 1,892 new cases. Hospitalizations are also at a high, with 1,188 people in hospital beds around the state with complications from COVID-19, according to NC DHHS. 

The disease has had a disproportionate effect on Black and Latino residents, with Black North Carolinians making up a third of the state’s 1,726 deaths and 43% of overall infections among those who are Latino. 

“Many members of our Latinx community work in essential jobs that are the backbone of our state’s economy,” Mandy Cohen, the NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, said in a media briefing Thursday. 

She was joined at the day’s media briefing by the North Carolina-based consul-generals for Guatemala and Mexico, who urged Guatemalans and Mexicans living in the state to take measures like wearing masks and staying home when ill to stop the spread of the disease. They also emphasize that testing, often free, can be looked up on a state website and information is not shared with federal immigration agents.  

“This virus will not defeat us,” said Claudia Velasco-Osorio, the Consul General of Mexico in Raleigh, in comments she made in both Spanish and English. 

Vaccines a coming hurdle

The only way to eventually beat COVID-19 is if an effective vaccine comes out. And then, people will need to agree to take it, a looming challenge for public health workers, said Lavanya Vasudevan, an assistant professor of community and family medicine at Duke University’s School of Medicine. 

“A vaccine is our best shot for ending this COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “As someone who works on vaccine hesitancy for a living, I’m very concerned about resistance to a COVID-19 vaccine.” 

That’s because vaccine hesitancy is at an all-time high in the US, evidenced by the record numbers of measles outbreaks last year. 

“We are having trouble convincing people to adopt very simple behaviors” like wearing masks, keeping physical distances and washing hands, Vasudevan said. “I’m concerned that it may be harder to convince people to adopt more difficult behaviors such as vaccines.” 

Work needs to start now, she said, even before a vaccine is developed, to talk about the safety hurdles and effectiveness of vaccines in order to prime the public to line up for whatever vaccines are eventually available, she said. 

“A vaccine is the best and safest option for developing an immunity,” she said.