Masks and Pandemics

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Masks and Pandemics

When the Coronavirus pandemic started, one of the big questions was whether or not we should be we should be wearing masks. This has been an important part of the larger question about how to stop the disease from spreading. Sadly, it has been one for which there has been much confusion, mostly due to government representatives flip-flopping on their stance over masks.

Disease spreads in different ways, but in all cases it is microscopic pathogens like bacteria and viruses that are spreading the disease. For respiratory diseases, like COVID-19  and the flu, the virus spreads through a means called “aerosol” and often mistakenly stated as “airborne.” But for it to truly be airborne, the disease pathogen would have to be able to travel through the air on its own. It can’t. It travels in droplets of spittle which are exhaled as part of a cough. They can also be exhaled when we talk, sing or yell.

We’ve all seen people who spray what they say; but while those larger droplets of spittle can carry bacteria and viruses, most of the droplets are actually too small to see. Yet they can travel as far as 12 feet just from the force of a cough and as much as 20 feet with a good tail wind.

Breathing in those droplets is what we need to avoid, in order to avoid catching the disease. That’s where masks come in. The mask doesn’t work as a filter, seeing as the holes in the fabric are large enough for the virus or bacteria to hold a parade. But if the right material is used to make the mask, it can absorb the droplets of spittle, trapping the disease pathogen in the mask.

Early on in the COVID pandemic, I noticed that two of the countries which were having the best results combating the disease were Japan and South Korea. The citizens of both those countries started wearing masks from the very beginning, not at government insistence, but because they had learned their lesson with SARS. The people donned masks to protect themselves.

But here’s the thing; any mask, with the possible exception of a gas mask with a “bio” filter in it, is most effective when worn by the person who is infected, not the healthy one. That’s why doctors and other medical professionals wear masks; they’re not trying to protect themselves, they’re trying to protect their patients. If someone who is healthy wears a mask, it only reduces their chances of catching the disease by 30%; but if someone who is infected wears one, it reduces the chances of them spreading the disease to others by 95%. That’s because the mask is catching their spittle, before it can spread.

Not all masks are created equal though. The two most common are the blue surgical masks and the N-95 mask. Both are designed with the above criteria in mind. But some N-95 masks have a flap valve for exhaling, which totally eliminates their effectiveness when worn by someone who is infected.

A lot of different things have been tried for homemade masks, some of which are more effective than others. The real key though is the fabric that is used. For a fabric to work as a mask to help prevent the spread of disease, it must be thick enough and a tight enough weave that you can hold it up to a bright light, and the light doesn’t shine through it. Multiple layers of many kinds of fabrics would need to be used to accomplish that.

People are wearing bandanas or gaiters for masks; which aren’t thick enough or dense enough to do the job. Neither are masks made of T-shirt material. Even the “three layer” fabric masks that are being sold now are questionable, unless they pass that light test.

Yes, masks will help reduce the spread of disease. We saw the results of that in the 2020-21 flu season, which was very mild. That’s because the precautions we were taking for the pandemic, also worked to reduce the spread of the flu.