OK. Once again, I’m not a scientist, an epidemiologist, a doctor, etc. But I have a personality quirk that compels me to research interesting (to me) topics and then write about them. You may feel free to ignore my post, or take it with a grain of salt. But as usual, I will try to provide the best information I can have. If you can find ample evidence to contradict me on this, please feel free to share. I love learning (weird for a person who struggled with school grades, I know) and information and ideas always intrigue me enough to listen.
I’ve seen a LOT (and I mean an insane) amount of posts regarding face masks and the corona virus on Facebook. Some of them have been pretty well reasoned, even if somewhat flawed or incomplete. In some cases, they’re memes with the line “I’ll wait”. People post these things up and think they’re so snappy, or witty… and in most cases, they’ve tried to distill a topic that is fairly elaborate and complex down to a sentence or two, and overlook a lot of facts that actual change quite a bit.
Face masks have been a particularly complexly debated topic. Are they effective against the coronavirus? Are they helping or harming us? What is the point of using them? Which ones work, which ones don’t, etc.
I can’t offer you sound medical guidance, but I can try to explain the scientific reasoning behind the face mask. There is sound medical logic, but you need to understand that it’s not something you can sum up with a sentence; not unless you understand that the sentence will likely only answer a single direct question, and not provide details on a more complicated question on their own.
So to understand the issue here, people are asking “what’s the point of wearing a face mask?”.
Do they offer any protection against the coronavirus or any other viruses? Do they present more of a risk or hazard than they prevent? Why do we need to do social distancing if we have face masks? Why do we need to wear face masks if we have social distancing. Now I’m going to try to break this down as best I can, and I’m not going to call you an idiot for questioning this. If you’ve waited for your explanation, this is it. It’s long; it’s not hard to understand, but it involves a LOT of moving pieces to fully appreciate. So let’s get started.
The short version is: the face mask does NOT guarantee you you won’t get sick from a virus. It’s true that many virus particles on their own are much smaller than most filtration masks handle. But the virus particles do not travel on their own. They can survive on certain surfaces for extended periods of time, some are resistant to UV exposure (sunlight). But to travel, most of the particles that make up a virus need to travel through the air in an aerosol form. And this is where we need to understand what the masks are trying to accomplish.
Here’s an experiment to conduct. It’s fairly simple, might only cost a couple of dollars, but it will teach you a valuable lesson. Get a spray bottle; the type that you put a household cleaner in, and fill it with water, and add a bit of food dye. Set up a piece of poster board outside. Now, measure out distances of 1 foot, 6 feet and 25 feet. Move to the farthest point out (25 feet), aim the sprayer at the cardboard, and spray. Nothing’s appeared on the poster board, unless you have a REALLY strong gust of wind heading in that direction. And even then, it’s unlikely to carry that far. Move to the 6 foot range, and repeat. You’ll probably seem some light speckling on the poster board, maybe even some moderate spots appear (depending on how strong a spritzer you have). Now, do the same thing at one foot. Obviously this close you’ll see a big spot appear on the poster board.
So what happened? Plain and simple, the particles from your spritzer dissipated too much at 25 feet to make it to your target. At 6 feet, the particles were larger, so the concentration of the particles was much greater and could hit the target better; however, the fact that the concentration was so tight means that a smaller obstacle could block a fair amount of it. At 1 foot, the concentration is VERY tight, but again, that means a smaller obstacle will catch and prevent it from passing through to the target.
Now, repeat the sequence of tests, but put a washcloth or dishrag just in front of the nozzle. If the rag gets soaked after a spray, move it so that you have a fresh, dry bit of cloth in front of the nozzle.
The spray will almost entirely end up caught by the cloth or dishrag, and very little if any will end up on the target at 6 foot. A bit more might get through and hit the target at 1 foot, but in all likelihood you’ll see less particles from the spray through the mask at 1 foot than you would without it at 6.
For one more test, you can repeat the test by putting the piece of cloth in front, and then holding a piece of wood in front of it. The piece of wood simulates an arm, especially around the inside of the elbow. Again, the amount of spray, if any, that reaches the target, will be VERY minimal.
Now some people might say “Well, yeah, but you moved the cloth in front of the nozzle each time. I can’t carry enough masks to keep switching them.” Yes, that might seem like cheating. But look at it like this: how often do you have a sneeze that’s as high in content of moisture as a spray bottle? Probably you don’t sneeze with the volume of liquid coming out. Honestly, if you do, it means a high volume of mucus and other bodily fluids coming out. Without a face mask, you might sneeze into your hands… or the mucus may be coming out of your nose or even (this is always gross) your mouth… and do you just leave it there? No, you go and get some tissue paper, and white it off. Probably if it was fairly bad, you’ll wash your hands and face. After all, isn’t that what we tell our kids in most cases? Wash your hands if you sneeze into them. More often than not, now, we try to teach them to sneeze into the crook of their arms whenever possible. And we tell them not to give someone a hug after that; forget the virus part – it’s just gross to get a hug and be covered in goop, right?
OK, so there’s less force coming out of your typical sneeze than a spritzer bottle, and that means that you’re not pushing out the volume of moisture that the bottle does. If there’s a smaller volume of moisture to begin with, suddenly those obstacles are made much more effective.
So now we have a reason for using some sort of barrier over our mouth or nose.
The next big thing that people bring up is that wearing the mask spreads the disease, because people tough their faces, or the mask, or whatever, and then touch other things, other people, etc. Yes, there is that risk; but the quantity of virus particles making it through a half-way decent mask is already greatly reduced. Further, touching your face, even on the mask, doesn’t spread the virus until you start touching lots of other things. That’s why stores and a lot of public places have stands and dispensers for sanitizer around, and you’re encouraged to apply a bit every so often. This isn’t a guarantee to stop this virus (or any virus), but it’s a form of redundancy to mitigate the risk.
Look at it this way: most cars now have safety belts, various air bags, and crumple zones designed into to collapse certain parts of a vehicle, while providing greater integrity to the passenger compartment. Safety belts on their owns usually save lives. Admittedly, sometimes they have cost lives, but over the years, as some accidents have happened, engineers and designers have researched improved ways of making the seat belts safer, and the potential for injury or death from the safety belts has generally gone down. Air bags have had the same history. Early designs could have some dangerous flaws – it took careful consideration, sometimes redesign, to fix those issues and mitigate risk factors. Crumple zones have failed, or just not been strong enough to properly handle impact. Again, designs were looked at, testing was performed, the ideas were improved upon.
Any one of those safety devices on their own might save you, or might cause you higher risk. The combination of those safety tools help to reduce the overall risk to a much greater degree. And the reality is that you may not be able to save everyone from a deadly accident. If a train hits your Honda Civic, you’re not looking at a high chance of successfully walking away. But if you’re a reasonably safe driver, and practice good defensive driving habits, and if other people are doing the same, the risk factor for deadly accidents is reduced, and the outcome of those accidents will likely turn more towards people surviving, possibly unharmed.
Yes, wearing a face mask could cause some of the germs to spread. That’s not wrong. But proper hygienic practice means that you combine wearing the mask with other actions to reduce the risk. You wash your hands or use sanitizer whenever possible, you wash your mask or replace them daily, and you have to actively push yourself to be aware of your actions more. This doesn’t outright stop the disease, but it helps to mitigate a LOT of the risk of spreading it.
Now some people still ask: why do we need to practice isolation or social distancing if we wear the masks? And if we wear the masks, why do we need to perform isolation and / or social distancing. If you look back to the experiment, the further you were from the target, and the more obstacles you put in front of the “source of a sneeze”, the greater the reduction in the spread of the virus particles. The guidelines that the CDC and WHO put out were based on the idea that the more space between people, and the better the barrier protection, the greater a reduction in potentially spreading the germs. To be honest, 6 foot might not quite be enough to entirely eliminate the spread. An article I read recently said that the truth is that a distance of 25 or more feet is probably closer to the necessity to fully eliminate that risk. The reason for the 6 foot rule, though, was to cut down the risk as much as possible, while looking at the reality of space concerns. Supermarkets can’t possibly guarantee being able to space things out so that we can always be 25 feet from everyone else. In fact, in most public places, you can’t do that; outdoors it’s a bit different, but if you’re outdoors, chances are that the UV light of the sun will help to kill more of the particles. And remember that UV light rays can still penetrate cloud cover to some extent, so they do get through to help out, even on a cloudy day.
So why is the government mandating lock-down even outside if we have all these precautions? Good question: first, we’re not really in a true lock-down, nationally. In a real lock-down, you wouldn’t be allowed to leave your house… at all… for any reason. The steps the government took in most cases was to issue an order to remain at home as much as possible, to avoid unessential travel, and to avoid crowded spaces. In some very specific instances, there were period were some locations had stricter requirements. For example, in New Jersey where some friends of mine live, there were restrictions that you had to fill out a form to keep with you when you went out for an errand, such as getting groceries, or picking up a loved one from work. The reason for this was simple. The government saw that people weren’t taking the guidance voluntarily, so they needed to temporarily enact some laws to mandate behavior, because they’re trying to look out for the best interest of the population.
And that leads to the second part of the answer. The issue with how viruses spread is that it’s not usually the severely sick who spread it; it’s those with minor symptoms or no symptoms that risk spreading the disease. Similar to how vaccines for diseases like Polio work, if you have 100 people, perhaps 90 percent of people could be infected and never have known. The virus isn’t strong enough to even temporarily give them any noticeable symptoms. Another 5 – 7% will show some symptoms, but be able to resist it, and their bodies can recover from it. The last 3 – 5% may fall into the category of immuno-compromised. They can’t fight off any infections, or if their bodies are fighting with that, a secondary illness can come in and lead to fatality. That’s how AIDS leads to death a lot.
Now people who are immuno-compromised can’t even get a vaccine; they could get ill even from an inactive version of any virus being in the body. While their body is trying to eliminate the virus particles, which would normally let the body “learn” how to protect itself, the body is too exhausted to start dealing with a second illness which is active, and that can be lethal. However, people without a compromised immune system can fairly easily “learn” that method of killing / removing the virus particles. If you give them the vaccine, the body learns rapidly to fight the infection, and then can actually kill and remove it rapidly; rapidly enough so that it can’t survive long enough for you to pass it on. If enough of the people who can safely receive the vaccine do, it maximizes the chances of preventing the virus from being carried around, and therefore infecting (and potentially killing) the people who cannot.
The masks are meant to do the same thing. If the water particles from your sneeze or cough are too big to actually pass through your mask, then they can’t get into the air and travel far enough to get to other people. If you’re practicing social distancing, that risk is further reduced. If you’re avoiding public places and adhering as much as possible to the rules to avoid gatherings and crowds, you’ve reduced that risk further, still.
The other things about viruses is that they can mutate. So far COVID-19 seems to mutate slowly, so the risk of this isn’t high. But enough people passing it around, and enough people’s systems fighting it off, it could lead to changes that cause new strains of the virus. By minimizing the risk of exposure while a vaccine does not exist for this virus, we reduce the chance of it being mutated. Then, if / when there is a vaccine, most people’s bodies will eliminate it and flush it from their system; if it’s happening rapidly in most people, the chances of it changing are reduced even more.
Getting back to the masks, they help to contain the virus if it is being expelled from your body. If you follow proper guidelines, you have contained most of the virus; you’ve kept distant enough from people to mitigate the risk of a few smaller droplets getting out into the atmosphere; by not being out unnecessarily, you have both allowed for people to not have to go into crowded spaces and risk spreading the disease even more; if we do this for long enough, we may but the time necessary for a safe vaccine to develop and be deployed.
Now while this has lead to a lot of tough situations (people being laid off from jobs, small companies struggling vastly, etc), it was really a matter of making sure that this was contained as much as possible while long-term solutions could be found; and we couldn’t be sure exactly how dangerous this was right away. However, given the nature of how this virus could effect people, the concern and caution was wise – it might not have been completely necessary, but what if we didn’t take these actions and were wrong? As of today (May 19, 2020) this virus has killed 320,000 worldwide. 92,000 of them here in the U.S.A. Now what if we hadn’t taken the precautions, including wearing the masks when we went out in public? There is the potential that the virus could have spread far more, and more people who are at risk could have become symptomatic – including those with critical conditions. Our health system has finite resources, it is entirely possible that some hospitals might have been overwhelmed by cases of this virus; and then the risk is that people with other conditions and injuries could NOT get the help they need. That leads to other people who could potentially have a dangerous issue turn fatal. That could have lead to a much higher death toll. The typical flu season in the United States is considered to run from November through April (sometimes coming on as early as October, and lasting as long as May). That means the flue season, when the risk of infection is high and the degree of fatalities is also high, is 6 – 8 months. You can look at these estimated numbers on flu deaths vs infections. The word season in the last 10 (not including 2019 – 2020) the worst was the estimated value in the 2017 to 2018 season, at 61,000. That is higher than the rest of the years by a margin of at least 10,000 – the next highest year was 2014 – 2015. Source: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/index.html So in a typical 6 month span, the worst outcome was 61,000 – just over 10,000 a month. In the US alone, to date, the death rate was 92,000. And the actual dates being considered start only back on January 22nd. 3 months, 27 days. Half the length of the typical flu season, and 50% more deaths than the typical flu – and that’s WITH the extensive protective measures in place. There’s no way to be sure what might have happened if this virus went on a full 6 month cycle, and even more, no way to know how bad it could have been had we not put the practices into place to protect people.
So the government largely erred on the side of caution.
There are other viruses that have the potential to spread and cause wide-spread devastation. Ebola is a good example – it takes a number of days to incubate (grow) and then it is extraordinarily dangerous; the mortality rate, depending on the strain of the virus, is anywhere from 25% – 90%. And the average means about 50%. Think that over. Take half the people you know (including family members) and eliminate half of them. And since the incubation period for Ebola is about two weeks, that means that you could be spreading it in all that time. The fortunate thing about Ebola is that it isn’t airborne – you can’t easily spread it by sneezing or coughing. It usually requires blood or saliva; it’s far more vulnerable to UV light, it’s not resilient enough for most environments, and the source of the virus is believed to be a region that doesn’t have a high degree of air travel – namely nations in central and mid-northern Africa. We’re lucky about that.
So the conclusion to this: the masks won’t stop you from catching the disease – they stop you from spreading the disease if you do catch it, especially being important if you’re lucky enough to be symptom-free. If the population at large all take the necessary steps, then few people if any are spreading the disease before their body can kill and flush it. That means people who have a harder time with illness are less likely to be exposed and infected (because many of them take these measures of staying home or distant as a regular course of action) and we’ve bought that much more time to find solutions that will let us resume our daily lives. I know it sucks. I want to go out and take train photos and videos. I miss a lot of social activities like going to the train club I belong to, going to movies and going to parks. I’m lucky I have a job that allows for me to work from home. I know a number of people who have made their entire living around a small business that they started and have run for years – and quite a few of them have minimal resources to survive during this time. Some of them are watching their work and effort crumble. I do know what that’s like. I’ve had a small business of my own, before. And I’ve seen the effects for myself on how fast a lack of work can lead to collapse. I won’t tell them they’re wrong for wanting to have their life’s work survive. Most of them are not rolling in the dough; but they chose the line of work that they did because they enjoyed it. If we really care about helping them out, we’ll need to jump back to the opportunity to make use of their services once again when this is over – that may be tough, because a lot of people will still be struggling with their own finances after being furloughed, perhaps laid off permanently… a lot of people are going to feel the economic crunch. It’s not selfish of small business owners to want to prevent that; but that means that the population at large needs to follow the guidelines set out for prevention as quickly and as much as possible, until we can get that better solution.
That’s not a guilt trip – that’s a fact. I doubt anyone wants to see others die. It’s not about you being at fault; it’s about you contributing to a solution.
I hope that this article has given you some better insights. I hope that you’re able to understand better what the masks are for. You can call it a sign of subservience that could lead to eroding of your rights. The Declaration of Independence was set out with the line:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Declaration_of_Independence
Life is the most precious of these rights. It’s not about “infringing on the rights” of others; it’s about promoting the chance for others to experience things. If you’re frustrated, if you’re upset, if you’re angry, it’s OK – the situation is frustrating, upsetting, and being angry about it is perfectly natural. You can’t be told it’s not any of that reasonably. It is about trying to prevent a much larger and riskier situation. It’s unlikely that we’ll have this go on for many years. Too many resources are already being directed to eliminating the risk. It’s also unlikely that another virus like this could crop up quickly. Even if there is, we’ll have a better understanding of what we can do to prevent the spread, and the next time, if people participate in the efforts like masks and social distancing to a greater degree, early on, the more severe lock-down strategies might not come forward. We might be able to go on in a more regular fashion, allowing for time to stop pandemics.
Try to think of this as a chance to contribute to a solution for the welfare of more people. And when we’re passed this, make sure you do as much as you can to help out those small businesses that were suffering through this. They are worthy of saving, just like our lives.