The Science Behind Face Masks
If you were to glimpse at Facebook or Twitter right now – especially as we hurdle towards the potential for more lockdowns – the ongoing information war over face masks might just throw your brain into a tailspin. Social media is a deeply flawed experiment, and we see just how divisive it has become at a time when deep national alignment is needed more than anything to solve our prevailing problems.
If I could lay the blame on one particular phrase at this moment, it would be the continual use of the term “settled science” or any of its variants. Science itself is never settled. For over 5000 years, the enterprise has relied on testable explanations and predictions about the universe. As time rolled forward, those original and tested assumptions have been challenged, tested, and updated. That’s science. And our lack of understanding that science is a process, not a destination, is where things got messy with Covid-19.
As early as February 2020, the C.D.C. told Americans not to wear face masks, and it took until early June for both the C.D.C. and W.H.O. to pivot and begin recommending them vehemently. This drastic shift is due to two very important factors. The first being that in the early days, the C.D.C. wasn’t aware of how rapidly the virus would spread, given that they had little-to-no testing applications in some locations. The second reason — more pernicious and likely the cause of a lot of distrust — was that we didn’t have enough masks in America and officials worried a run on face coverings would put frontline workers at risk, thus exacerbating the problem.
So, here we are, five months after a new consensus has been reached. The market is now awash in masks. And we are more than aware of how fast the virus can spread. While this isn’t settled science, it definitely is scientific consensus at this point in time to wear one. So, let’s talk about how they work. Swish a little hand sanitizer on your anxious fingers, and let’s jump in…
It’s Not You, It’s Me
Peter Chin-Hong MD, an infectious disease specialist, puts it best: “I think there’s enough evidence to say that the best benefit is for people who have COVID-19 to protect them from giving COVID-19 to other people, but you’re still going to get a benefit from wearing a mask if you don’t have COVID-19.” In short, he’s saying it’s about you not infecting other people because there’s a chance you have COVID and don’t know it.
One of the final straws to break the camel’s back for the C.D.C. on their mask-wearing position was an evolved understanding of how transmission is possible in both pre-symptomatic (people who eventually get sick) and asymptomatic (people who have COVID but never show signs) individuals. So, for those who claim they don’t need to wear a mask because they aren’t sick, they’ll need to face the reality that they can’t be certain that at that very moment they aren’t carrying the virus.
If you take only one thing away from this article, it should be: face masks work largely by mitigating the potential for you to breathe out the disease. The inverse of this is still a reason to wear them and know that you can contract COVID through the membranes in your eyes. So the more people we have in our communities actively working to block their transmission (knowingly and otherwise), the sooner we’ll walk our way out of this Coronavirus hellscape.
Armed with this knowledge, you might find yourself hitting Amazon or elsewhere to gather some ways to protect those around you. You wouldn’t be alone if you hit a little “analysis paralysis” when deciding which face covering is best for you. Fear not, we can help.
Good, Not Perfect
There are numerous studies that aim to determine the efficacy of the various types of face masks available to the public at this point. The gist is that cloth masks are a great place to start, especially if that’s all you have access to. Surgical masks are becoming more prevalent now that supply lines are ramping back up. These lightweight (often blue) face coverings are a small step beyond the coverage provided by standard cloth. So if you can get your hand-sanitized phalanges on some of these babies, do it.
The real heavy hitters in the mask market are the N95 and KN95. The K in the latter version identifies that this mask does not meet the U.S.’s OSHA regulations required to be considered an N95. That doesn’t really matter, though, because you can’t get your hands on N95’s in the U.S. right now. KN95 Masks are manufactured in many of the same factories in China as our beloved N95’s are, and their product claims often say they are essentially identical, so users beware.
Regardless of what mask you land on, Chin-Hong points out that the concept is “risk reduction rather than absolute prevention.” Meaning that some level of protection is always more beneficial than none. It seems evident that the most important element in mask selection is finding one that is comfortable enough that you don’t feel like ripping it off your face every five seconds like a surgical doc that just walked out of 16-hour brain surgery.
So, to paraphrase Voltaire: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Find something that you like to wear, and wear it. We’re all in this together.
- Assessment Of Fabric Masks As Alternatives To Standard Surgical Masks In Terms Of Particle Filtration Efficiency – Amy Mueller And Loretta Fernandez