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CDC adjusts its public health messaging to appeal to Americans’ individualism

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Salon, November 2020

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) switched up its public health messaging. The new messaging, which can be observed in the agency’s Nov. 10 scientific briefing, strongly emphasizes how wearing a mask keeps you, the individual, safe. Not others, not strangers or community members — but the wearer themselves. 

“Masks also help reduce inhalation of these droplets by the wearer (‘filtration for personal protection’),” the CDC states. “The community benefit of masking for SARS-CoV-2 control is due to the combination of these effects; individual prevention benefit increases with increasing numbers of people using masks consistently and correctly.”

In addition to touting the individual benefits, the CDC highlighted the economic benefits of wearing a mask, too. “An economic analysis using U.S. data found that, given these effects, increasing universal masking by 15% could prevent the need for lockdowns and reduce associated losses of up to $1 trillion or about 5% of gross domestic product,” the new messaging explains.

It’s undisputed that mask-wearing is protective for the wearer — though perhaps even more so for others in their vicinity, should the wearer be unknowingly sick. Yet the CDC’s new messaging differs drastically from the dawn of the pandemic, when the CDC first urged Americans to wear face coverings in public. Back then, the CDC’s guidance focused on how donning a mask protected others from you, as you might have the coronavirus but be asymptomatic and unaware of it. Now, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said, the benefit of wearing masks is a “two-way street.”

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