More on masks….and the Confusion Surrounding Their Use
So much has already been written and discussed about the appropriate use of masks during this pandemic, but it still remains a confusing topic especially for those who are not front line care givers, first responders or in high risk occupations. For those of us who are, the need to wear all the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) including the N-95 face masks and the like is quite clear. The risk of exposure for such individuals is great, and therefore so is the the need for protection. However, for those who are not on the frontline wearing a mask may simply be an expression of an unreasonable fear or perhaps confusion about what should be done to protect oneself and others in a low risk environment. A lot of this fear and confusion may be perpetuated by governmental authorities who feel that they need to control in every aspect what we do as individuals because ordinary people are not really capable of making sound judgements regarding their own care. Dr. Fauci says he wears a mask because he wants to protect himself as well as others and also because he wants to make a mask a “symbol” for people to see that it’s “the kind of thing you should be doing.” However, do we really need a symbol in place of real information about what we should be doing and why so we can make our own sensible judgements? Or, is the promotion of this “symbol” just something to help enforce compliance with a lot of rules and regulations that at this point in the pandemic are of questionable value? Countless times I have seen people riding alone in cars with face masks on, riding bicycles on country roads or walking along deserted streets with face masks on. Just recently I saw a woman leave her suburban house to walk down her driveway to her mailbox with mask and gloves on to pick up her mail with no one within a hundred feet of her. I don’t think the use of a mask in situations such as these reflects symbolism or appropriate protectiveness to any degree. Instead, I think this type of behavior reflects a paranoia engendered by the media and to some extent by governmental bodies which are confused, but none the less determined, to control our activities by telling us what we need to do even though there may be little or no proof that what they are telling us is indeed correct. So having said all of this let’s take another realistic look at how and when masks might be used in the daily lives of ordinary people and not those of first responders, front line care givers or workers in high risk occupations. To do so let’s also take a realistic look at how this virus spreads realizing that there is still a lot that needs to be learned.
First, the virus can indeed spread between people interacting in close proximity. For example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing can spread the virus from an infected individual to an uninfected individual. However, the key words here are “close proximity.” Usually that means within 6 to 9 feet of each other. In light of this evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (for example, grocery stores, pharmacies, subways, buses, public buildings, etc. ) especially in areas where there is significant evidence of disease spread. However, keep in mind that simple cloth masks will only help prevent large droplet transmission and not small airborne viral particle transmission. So simple cloth masks may help somewhat in certain circumstances where close proximity is an unavoidable issue because large droplets will be retained by the cloth mask. However, small airborne viral particles will not be retained by a cloth mask, nor will a cloth mask filter out such particles and prevent them from being inhaled by someone else. So for the person with the virus who is coughing the cloth mask will help stop the droplets containing the virus from settling on another person, but it will not stop the tiny airborne viral particles themselves from being dispersed to others. For the person who is not infected and wearing a cloth mask, the cloth mask will only help prevent the large droplets from reaching that individual but not the tiny airborne viral particles themselves. To help prevent airborne viral particle transmission which would be necessary in situations of close contact, an N-95 mask or better would be needed. Therefor, it makes very little sense to wear a mask of any kind when you are out and about away from people like when going for a walk or bike ride on country road, driving in your car alone, walking along a beach, etc.
More on Other Modes of Transmission
The coronavirus can live for hours to days on surfaces like countertops and doorknobs, but how long it survives depends on a number of factors like the texture of the surface, heat and humidity. There is also evidence for fecal oral transmission. A lot still has to be learned about how long this virus can survive outside the body, but as of now it seems that you are much more likely to catch it directly from another person than from surfaces.
Finally a Word About Mutation of the Virus
Viruses can mutate and that can cause a problem in terms of vaccines and treatments. However, mutation is not always a bad thing. Sometimes mutations can lead to a weakening of the virus so that it eventually dies out. The Sars C0V -2 virus seems to have a slower mutation rate than the influenza virus so that may be a good thing for vaccine development.