Pandemic Perspective #14    June 20

Face masks forever?

The confusion and contradictory advice regarding face masks is never-ending and the varying rules among several state governors about wearing them might go on forever too! How long are you willing to wear a mask whenever you are outside your own home or vehicle? Are you thinking about having your mask-defying neighbors over for dinner anytime soon? That last idea might get you arrested, or at least cited. Dr. Wilma Wooten, San Diego County’s public health officer, says that getting together with someone not in your own household would likely be banned until we have achieved herd immunity.

That last point is crucial. In order for herd immunity to effectively slow down the spread of the coronavirus it would probably require that at least half – and perhaps as many as 70 or 80 or 90 percent! – of persons in the major population centers of the world would have to have recovered from the virus or to have received a proven vaccine.  Fewer than 10 million cases have been identified so far out of a global population of more than 7 billion! Like so many issues involving this new coronavirus, no infectious disease or public health expert has any idea of what herd immunity means for COVID-19.

But wait a minute! The more we succeed at limiting spread of the virus by shutting down the world’s economy the longer it will take to achieve herd immunity. Even if the most optimistic estimates pan out it will be a least a year before an effective vaccine will reach most of the industrial world.

And here’s another fly in the face mask ointment. On June 16th Greek researchers reported that coughing through a face mask could propel virus-carrying droplets as far as four feet. As one of the study’s authors noted, “The use of a mask will not provide complete protection.” That has been tragically obvious among healthcare workers who spend days on end within inches of the faces of infected patients, wearing masks that are nearly 100 percent effective. Some virus particles are eventually going to get through and long exposure to high concentrations of a virus can be deadly.

And here’s something that is hardly ever mentioned: there is an enormous difference between a properly fitted medical grade N95 mask and a cloth mask.

A headline in the San Diego Union-Tribune (June 19, 2020) reflects the confusion: Muddled mask messaging may be haunting coronavirus re-openings.” The article describes the masks being recommended: “…cloth coverings – homemade masks, bandanas, gaiters, scarves” and that medical-grade masks commonly known as N95, “should be saved for healthcare workers.” It’s very clear, however, that simple cloth masks are not very effective. Bandanas? Scarves?

The Keystone Kops (yes, that’s the way they spelled it in the early 1900s) had nothing on the coronavirus experts of 2020.

In regard to the term “forever” in the title of this blog, here’s a cheery note. In a survey by the New York Times more than half of more than 500 epidemiologists and infectious diseases experts said that it will be at least a year before they stop routinely wearing a mask.

My suggestions – at least for the moment:

Follow the rules and wear a good mask; stay away from anyone who is coughing.

Come out of isolation whenever you can to preserve your sanity, especially if that involves being outdoors where the risk is close to zero.

Accept that you might become infected with the coronavirus. It’s part of being human and you are adding to herd immunity.


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