See more of the story

It seems like a milestone: Face masks have begun to show up in roadside trash. Maybe it's an indicator that in the age of COVID-19, masks have become as common as gum wrappers and can be discarded with about as much care or thought. But it's a fitting symbol of the contempt with which some people view the masks and the leaders who mandate their use.

The masks, and the people who promote them, deserve better.

If there is some lingering confusion over whether and when we should wear face masks, authorities now offer clear answers: Yes, and always — at least when other people are around.

To be fair, the messaging on masks has not always been so plain. Early on in the COVID-19 era, experts said that ordinary people without symptoms should concentrate on hand-washing and leave mask-wearing to the professionals. That was before the distinctions among types of masks became matters of household discourse, and before most people even knew the difference between a respirator and a ventilator. It remains perfectly true that the highest grades of mask should be reserved for use by medical workers. But the lower orders of cloth masks should still have their place in the layperson's wardrobe, and on the layperson's face.

The imperative to wear masks in public would be clearer if President Donald Trump were willing to help set an example. He is not, and there is little use bemoaning the fact. A more helpful public leader is Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health. In an interview aired Wednesday on NPR, Fauci said this:

"I wear a mask. I'm a public health official. For better or worse, I'm very visible, so I want to set the example that people need to do that. … This is extremely important: Avoid congregation in crowds. If you feel you must do that — which I recommend you don't — then wear a mask at all times."

Fauci also addressed what he called the "really unfortunate" partisan divide that makes Republicans less likely to wear masks than Democrats, and that leads some young people to act as if they're invulnerable. "We're all in this together," he said. "People don't appreciate that they are all part of a process, and the process is a dynamic viral outbreak."

The implacable course of the coronavirus in the United States, with more deaths than any other country, has prompted the European Union to consider banning U.S. travelers when Europe reopens to most travel next month. That may be only fair, considering that Trump months ago imposed just such a ban on European travelers to the United States. But it is sobering to consider that in a worldwide pandemic, the United States is faring worst of all.

Last Thursday, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington projected an additional 57,000 U.S. deaths from COVID-19 by Oct. 1 without universal mask use, but 24,000 if masks are widely worn.

As Fauci suggested, this is not an occasion for political squabble. Republicans and Democrats are equally attractive to the virus, and they should take equal responsibility for helping thwart its advance. A closefitting cloth mask, preferably of several layers and covering the nose as well as mouth, isn't enough to stop the pandemic. People should also avoid crowds, practice social distancing, wash their hands and sanitize often. And while they're doing all of that, they might want to consider that a public health crisis could be an opportunity — finally — for a fractured country to find common cause.