As the COVID-19 saga has unfolded, the issue of masks has waxed and waned in the eyes of government officials and the media. Through this all, the amount of real information given to the public was extremely limited. People were expected to obey government mandates just because they were told to; the experts had spoken.
But whether you’re a two-year-old or a 102-year-old, you’re more likely to go along with such directives if you understand why you’re being told to do it. The two-year-old who doesn’t yet understand that a hot stove will burn you is going to want to touch it, until they finally get burned.
Doctors and other medical professionals wear masks not so much for their protection, but to protect their patients. There’s actually a very slim possibility, only about 5%, that the mask will protect them from catching a disease that one of their patients have. But if they are infected in any way, there’s a 70% chance that the mask will prevent that from spreading to their patients.
Part of the problem is that the masks we use: surgical masks, N-95 masks and even homemade cloth masks are unable to filter out the incoming microscopic droplets of spittle that carry the disease by “aerosol” transmission, let alone the bacteria and viruses themselves. However, they are all absorbent, making it possible for them to capture those droplets as they leave our mouths.
So mask mandates aren’t to protect ourselves; they’re to protect others.
But does it work?
A couple of the best examples of this are Japan and South Korea. When COVID-19 first hit, the people of these two countries immediately adopted wearing masks, without any government mandate. They had recently dealt with the SARS epidemic, so they knew what to do. Because they all did it, it slowed the spread of the disease. Everyone doing it is more has been more important with COVID than other diseases, because of the high number of people who can be infected, yet asymptomatic.
The next question then, is what sort of mask works? If we are wearing them under the aforementioned premise, to not spread the disease from ourselves to others, than several types of masks are effective. Specifically, the blue surgical masks and true N-95 masks work (not everything that’s called a N-95 mask really meets the specifications). For the N-95 masks to work, they need to be the kind without an exhale valve. In all cases, the mask must fit well around the face and nose.
But what about homemade masks?
Here the confusion becomes even greater, largely because there are lots of different ways that homemade masks are made. Some are good and others are more symbolic than effective.
The basic criteria that is being used is that the mask is made of three layers of fabric. But that’s a bit vague, because three layers of cotton T-shirt material and three layers of burlap aren’t anywhere close to the same thing.
Here’s a better criteria: For the mask to be effective, you have to be able to hold it up to a bright light and not be able to see the light through it. Fabric that is that dense, is much more likely to catch the tiny drops of spittle we’re concerned about.
Since those are reusable masks, they should be washed periodically, ensuring that germs are cleaned off them. Between times, they can be stored inside-up in the sunlight to purify them, as ultraviolet light will kill the virus.
What if you want a mask that will protect you?
In that case, you need to buy a gas mask and a bio-filter for it. Chemical filters will not work; but a bio-filter is designed to not only trap, but kill any microscopic pathogens that come into contact with it. Just keep in mind though, that those filters have an expiration date on them and won’t work as effectively after that date.