Czech prime minister to Trump: May I recommend masks for everyone, Mr. President?

He shouldn’t be pitching this at Trump. Trump seems pretty convinced already that masks can be useful, as he should be. He talked yesterday at his briefing about people using scarves as a form of crude protection. Several layers of cotton fabric would be better but he’s got the right idea. Anything that might conceivably catch infected droplets on their way in — or out — of your nose or mouth will be useful in reducing transmission rates.

The Czechs know. They’re such fans of masks that they’re lobbying internationally for more mask-wearing on social media. At the highest levels.

Babiš has been prime minister since late 2017. There are more than 3,000 known cases of coronavirus in the Czech Republic but that’s significantly lower per capita than nearby Germany and Austria. Conceivably that’s attributable to different rates of testing, but Babiš seems to be a true believer in masks — so much so that his government has made them mandatory, triggering a national effort among citizens to make their own at home.

The CDC is thinking about it. Not a mandate, of course, but a recommendation.

Federal officials debating whether to recommend that face coverings be routinely worn in public are responding to increasing evidence that infected people without symptoms can spread the coronavirus, according to internal memos provided to the White House by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Simple cloth masks that cover the mouth and nose can prevent virus transmission from such individuals when they are out buying groceries or seeking medical care, according to the memos obtained by The Washington Post

Wearing cloth masks in public places would be an additional community mitigation tool, according to the memos. Social distancing of at least six feet is still recommended even when wearing a mask. The memos emphasize that a cloth facial mask is intended not so much to protect the wearer but to help prevent the spread of the virus to others. A memo dated Thursday noted that people “generate respiratory aerosols when speaking, coughing and sneezing” that can be inhaled by nearby individuals…

The Monday document suggested promotional “tag lines” the government could use if it recommended face coverings for the public: “COVID ends with me,” “My mask protects you and your mask protects me” and “I wear my mask to protect my community.”

“My mask protects you and your mask protects me” is exactly the message of the widely viewed Czech PSA embedded below. The feds’ anxiety about mask-wearing, apparently, is that we’re all a bunch of big dummies who’ll treat our facial covering as license to give up on social distancing, which remains crucial to stopping the spread. Part of me feels insulted by that assumption; another part of me remembers those imbecile college kids partying on spring break while much of the country was shutting down and thinks, yeah, there are a lot of dummies around. So long as gathering places like bars and restaurants remain closed, though, the cultural pressure to continue social distancing should abide.

Plus, Michael Bennet made a good point about why official sanction for mask-wearing could be important: “I know from my own personal experience that it is awkward to walk around wearing a mask when everybody else is not wearing one. That’s another reason why I think it’s important for the CDC to weigh in here.” Western culture doesn’t look brightly at masks. Men especially might have trouble getting into the habit of wearing masks lest doing so be seen as an admission of fear. That’s why it’s key that the feds frame their recommendation as something the mask-wearer does to protect others, not himself. It’s not about an uninfected person stopping the particles from going in, it’s about an infected but asymptomatic person stopping the particles from going out.

There are a lot of people like that walking around right now.

“Patient Z,” for example, a 26-year-old man in Guangdong, China, was a close contact of a Wuhan traveler infected with the coronavirus in February. But he felt no signs of anything amiss, not on Day 7 after the contact, nor on Day 10 or 11.

Already by Day 7, though, the virus had bloomed in his nose and throat, just as copiously as in those who did become ill. Patient Z might have felt fine, but he was infected just the same.

Researchers now say that people like Patient Z are not merely anecdotes. For example, as many as 18 percent of people infected with the virus on the Diamond Princess cruise ship never developed symptoms, according to one analysis. A team in Hong Kong suggests that from 20 to 40 percent of transmissions in China occurred before symptoms appeared.

Asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission is what makes this virus so diabolical. Imagine how much easier it’d be to contain if people weren’t infectious until they had a cough or a fever, some clue that they needed to self-isolate. In the absence of that, universal mask-wearing is one thing we can do to reduce spread by asymptomatics.

It’s a cinch that the CDC will end up recommending masks, however softly, specially given the continued lag in testing in some states. If people don’t know when they’re sick and we still can’t quickly identify those who are sick diagnostically, the no-brainer move is to have everyone assume that they’re sick and act accordingly. If you don’t need to be outside for a good reason, don’t be. If you do need to be, wear a mask. The CDC will end up doing the smart thing, albeit much later than they should have. Which is the story of the government response to COVID-19 in nearly every aspect.

Exit question: How soon before doctors are forced to start making their own masks and protective gear too? I’m not joking.