Why do people wear masks?

Let’s talk about face masks and their use in the Covid 19 pandemic.

This is a complicated topic and anyone talking about it like it isn’t as if the correct answer is super simple and obvious they’re not the one. the only thing simple or obvious about this topic is that health care workers absolutely need access to medical grade personal protective equipment.

This also applies to other frontline workers. Especially those working with our most vulnerable populations and places like long-term care facilities and shelters. they need access to the appropriate personal protective equipment in order to do their job safely.

For the rest of us though things are a lot less clear-cut. especially because there’s currently a shortage of medical grade masks. like n95 s and those surgical masks.

So we can’t just be all willy-nilly snatching them up off the shelves. just in case it helps. because we know for sure there are people whose lives are on the line. If they don’t have access to those supplies. that’s why I’m talking this.

Because it’s important we understand the evidence for the use of masks by everyone. the evidence against it and the evidence that straight-up missing.

Nothing in this article is meant to detract or take away from what Public Health guidelines are saying, it’s just to give them a little bit of context, let’s start by talking about the rationale why should we even be considering face masks for Covid 19.

Covid 19 spreads from direct contact with respiratory droplets from infected individuals or in direct contact with the surfaces those droplets land on. these droplets are generated from coughing sneezing singing breathing heavily and dare I say.  

Respiratory droplets are most concentrated closer to the source or the individual. and then they’ll start to disperse and many will fall to the ground after about a meter or so about 6 feet. that’s why it’s so important to physically distance.

But the real world is messy it’s not like a droplet just comes out of someone’s mouth gets to 6 feet and then just falls to the ground. no there’s a lot of variability here. some smaller droplets could escape and travel a little bit further. But the key is that the further they are from the source the more diluted they are in the air.

And so the less risk they are and that’s why physical distance is so so key. but air on the side of caution stay further away than you think you need to and stay home as much as possible.

If you have any symptoms you have to stay home. and isolate from other people in your home. why don’t you feel sick or not always cover your cough and sneeze like a vampire or in a tissue that you then throw away and wash your hands.

Most of this stuff I’ve said so far is probably familiar it’s not exactly news at this point. so you might be wondering what’s changed then why are the guidelines starting to shift.

Well over the last two months a few new studies have come out suggesting it’s possible that infected individuals even if they don’t have symptoms may also be able to transmit covid 19 through droplets.

Because even when we’re not sick we’re still generating droplets. most of the data out of China showed that the majority of transmission happened between close contact with infected individuals with symptoms. but the CDC looked at these studies incited seven in particular and thought.

All right we know number one hand hygiene and physical distancing are still crucial. a lot of people are going for walks with people not from their household. and they think well if I’m six feet apart it’s fine it’s not. think of the actor on stage projecting and they’re speaking loud so they’re spitting everywhere.

It’s not a good look. but maybe on essential trips out of the house to places like the pharmacy or grocery store it makes sense in light of these new studies to wear some sort of cloth based covering if they can. not medical mask cloth face covering.

Let’s dig into some of the science behind masks.

Theoretically it kind of just makes sense that if you block your nose and mouth with something. that should be able to produce how many infectious particles could come out the other side. It just seems logical. and scrap material isn’t too hard to come buy. but just like any medication for example there are risks if you don’t use masks properly. there’s a risk of self contamination.

And we already know people are touching their faces. in fact in a study of medical students they found that on average they were touching their face 23 times per hour. plus masks might change our behavior and give us a false sense of security.

Maybe we’ll think “okay can get a little bit closer because I have a mask on it’s a shield” right. but not necessarily. and that’s why this is not a chill decision. and we need to look at the data to help us out.

Here’s the challenge most of the studies we have are about medical grade masks like n95 s and surgical masks in medical settings in hospitals. when we start looking for studies done outside of hospitals or even non-medical masks like cloth face coverings.

When it comes to cloth masks we have no studies. showing that wearing a cloth mask out and about is gonna protect the person wearing it none. there’s no studies showing that people who tend to wear cloth masks get fewer respiratory illnesses.

So we don’t know if cloth masks offer protection to the wearer. this will change new studies are happening but right now it’s all speculative.

This doesn’t mean clock masks are useless. and it also doesn’t mean you need to put hundreds of layers of material around your face either. there is some information out there that well it won’t answer our questions directly can help us make more informed decisions.

There are just so many unknowns. Because this is a new virus. the uncertainty leaves us feeling anxious frustrated mistrusting. you want more information but at the same I’m you’re kind of like saturated with news about covid 19. I totally feel all of those things I am right there with you.

There are a lot of people out there who are using these new guidelines as an opportunity to be like I’ve told you”. So I just want us to understand all that goes into a single decision. and instead of having really binary conversations like this is right and this is wrong.

I want us to start facing the unknowns a little bit more. because that’s the only way we’re gonna move forward being well-informed. it’s a complex thing and our conversations about it need to be complex. if this was helpful for you it’s really helpful for me if you give it a share stay curious stay informed and stay safe thanks.

By RMG Perera

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