Yes, You Should Wear Masks — to Protect Others, If Not Yourself

— by a contributing writer

This week Governor Ralph Northam restated what we have all been hearing for weeks: “Hospitals and medical facilities in Virginia and around the country are in desperate need of additional masks, gowns, gloves, and other personal protective equipment.” HCA Virginia reiterated the need Monday when announcing that it had set up donation boxes to receive extra masks from the public.

Virginia is still at the front end of the COVID-19 storm. Maybe a state-wide shut down and self-isolation will “flatten the curve” until better treatments are available. Until then, what should individual citizens do? Haven’t we heard medical experts claim that masks really won’t help us? That we probably don’t know how to use masks properly anyway?

It’s time to think this through. If you absolutely must venture out and interact with others, it makes sense to cover your face, even if it is only with a bandana. No, this is not so much to protect you, although it helps a little. It’s to protect others from you.

Early studies have concluded that about 2/3 of all cases are spread by people who don’t know yet that they are sick. The main way an infected person spreads the virus is by spreading aerosolized droplets of saliva. When people speak, they spray out an invisible shower that can travel several feet, land on surfaces or hang in the air for a few hours. Thus, while staying six feet away from someone does help, it doesn’t provide full protection in enclosed spaces such as stores.

Yet even a simple face covering can substantially reduce/trap the output of infected droplets – not all – but there are enough benefits to make it worth the effort. (It also deters you from touching your face, another important factor if your hands have become contaminated.)

Wearing a mask to protect others if you have symptoms has been the medical and government recommendation all along. But that logic simply doesn’t hold up if people don’t know they have become infected and are already contagious.

Again, not interacting face-to-face/self-isolation is the best choice. Putting on a mask should not make you feel like it’s okay to go out and interact when it is not absolutely essential.

We’ve heard that basic surgical masks are mainly designed to protect patients.  That’s true: They don’t seal around the edges and don’t filter as well. But a study in England found that in a hospital setting, they were almost as effective as the N-95 masks in preventing flue infections. Washing hands and wiping down surfaces remains crucial to deal with virus that has been deposited on surfaces.

Sadly, in order to deter citizens from hoarding masks desperately needed by health care and other critical service workers, we have been rather disingenuously pitched, even by medical professionals, that masks won’t help us. This recent New York Times opinion piece covers that topic. Health care workers do need the masks, and the article makes other valid points. For example, the virus can also be acquired through the eyes (and perhaps even skin), which is why doctors on the front lines are wearing goggles or face shields and robes. But we need to learn about the topic rather than be told we are too ignorant to use a mask properly.

It may be a long time before production of medical-grade masks of any kind are sufficient to supply the public also. Major manufactures have more than doubled their production to tens of millions of masks a year. Locally, Julie Kratzer organized hundreds of seamstresses in “RVA Masks 4 Health.” And small companies like Karla Colletto’s Vienna swimwear company are retooling to sew protective gear. But these efforts will not be enough. In this context, using your own improvised cloth masks or bandanas is not foolish. Even the Centers for Disease Control acknowledges that improvised masks offer some efficacy.

As things get worse, and they surely will, the public relations campaign to ‘talk down’ citizens’ use of masks will likely prove to have been a huge – and deadly – disservice and an impediment to stopping the pandemic. Instead, we should take whatever credible steps we can to protect others, even if we don’t yet have symptoms. Doing so is in all our self-interests.

Coming soon: Is It Even Legal to Wear a Mask in Virginia?

The author, who asks to remain unnamed, is a researcher living in the Richmond area.

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4 responses to “Yes, You Should Wear Masks — to Protect Others, If Not Yourself”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Great. I’ve got a few extra rolls of TP. Wanna trade? No way I’m finding masks in a store, and no way I need it more than the medical staff. If I had a box I’d donate it. As to the law against masks, nobody is going to think about enforcing that. Be serious.

  2. DeptOfTyranny Avatar

    I understand that manufacturing capability of masks is much better in Asia due the air pollution. Before the virus, in asia, the masks were sold in the check-out lines of corner stores for bad air days. Its not so much a “china is cheaper” story, but the economies of scale and logistics of the manufacturing capacity being closer to the area of typical high demand.

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Had a box of ten masks for sanding, cleaning out dryer vents, etc. Have a few left. Gave a couple to my son and keeping the rest. I’ve been following the CDC recommendations not to use them.

  4. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    The number of people walking on the sidewalks, trails and streets in McLean is up. But everyone moves to the right or otherwise gives leave. Lots of waving and smiles. A number of workers on the job outside. They wave and receive waves too. And it’s a great time to be a dog. They are getting more walks than they’ve had in years.

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