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Covid questions: Mask-wearing, birth rates

June 29, 2021

Editor’s note: We will be publishing answers to questions about COVID-19 and the pandemic each week in this COVID questions column. If you have a question, please email it to

Q: Should I still wear a mask when I’m out in public?

A: Masks are one of the simplest, yet most effective options we have to slow the spread of the virus. For that reason, masks will be around for seasons to come, and will continue to be commonplace in health care settings.

In late 2019, researchers began to better understand how the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads. It became clear that masks were going to be a key part of mitigating the impact of SARS-CoV-2 and a fundamental tool during the pandemic. Scientists learned that the virus primarily spreads when an infected person breathes, talks or coughs, which ejects droplets containing the virus into the air. People in close proximity then breathe in these droplets.

Rates of respiratory illnesses like the flu and cold were significantly lower in 2020 than they had been pre-pandemic, and this evidence may necessitate masking, though physical distancing also helped reduce respiratory infections in 2020.

In some countries, it is common and socially acceptable to wear a mask when one has symptoms of respiratory illness. In the U.S., the long-term acceptance and use of masks will likely be mixed, but don’t be surprised if you see boxes of masks become more commonplace around workplace or home settings, like a box of facial tissue or hand sanitizer.

Sick individuals should stay home, but many people do go out or come to work sick for a variety of reasons. For many respiratory conditions, like flu, a cold or COVID-19, a mask will be a must for people who choose to leave their homes while ill.

—Ajay Sethi, associate professor of population health sciences, from UW Health newsroom

Q: How will the pandemic impact birth rates in the year ahead? What about marriage rates and divorce rates?

A: The birth rate was down eight percent in December 2020. If you look back nine months, you realize the pandemic was in fact depressing birth rates, not increasing them. During that period of the pandemic we said, “The future might be scary,” and when we believe that the future is uncertain we are much less likely to have children, so we have seen an increase in the speed of the decline of birth rates.

Just like the Great Depression, you see a leveling off of marriage and divorce when people can’t do it because you’re stuck at home. I do predict we will see a slight increase in divorce rates out of this pandemic, but I also think that for some people the pandemic has encouraged their relationship and made things stronger. Any time you pressure test something, it can go one way or the other.

—Christine Whelan, clinical professor, consumer science, School of Human Ecology, from UW Now Livestream

See more answers to COVID questions at Also, visit our COVID-19 impact site.