Dr. Atul Gawande told CNBC on Monday that people must take seriously the responsibility of wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“If we can get over 60% of us wearing masks that are 60% effective … we can shut down the virus,” Gawande said on “Squawk Box.”
Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard University professor, said a double-layered, well-fitted cotton mask would be at least 60% effective at blocking a person’s respiratory droplets, which is how the virus is transmitted.
“Yes, there are going to be people who don’t want to wear their mask, just like they don’t necessarily want to get their vaccinations,” Gawande said. “But above a certain level, and it doesn’t have to be perfect, we can create the change.”
The Centers for Disease Control began to recommend that people wear face coverings in early April, particularly in settings where social distancing can be more difficult, such as in the grocery store.
Gawande, who also is chairman of Haven, the joint health-care venture from Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase, stressed that it takes time to build a culture in which wearing a mask and measures such as frequent hand washing are a priority. But he said it must be done.
“The challenge is that our culture, our discussion in American life right now is about freedom versus safety, leave me alone or keep me safe,” Gawande said. “We overcame this in the health-care sector by saying, ‘I want to come to work every day never wanting to infect anybody else.’ I never want to cause someone else to be in the morgue.”
Gawande said he has so far been impressed with the number of people he sees in public wearing masks. But he said it has varied community by community.
“The ones that are going to see the burst of infections, guess what? They’re going to change,” he said. “This is about us learning, not about becoming vigilantes with each other, but about building a way that we are actively interested in preventing infecting one another.”
Gawande had for about two years been the CEO of Haven, a much-hyped effort from the three corporate giants to reduce health-care costs and improve the quality of service. The company announced last week that Gawande would be moving to the role of chairman.
Gawande said serving as chairman allows him to “focus on strategy” and “also be externally active including on Covid-19.”
“We’re focused on our more than a million workers and their families for better cost, better outcomes and better experience of care,” he said. “We’re making good progress, and we’ll be reporting out on what we learn as we go along.”