I know little about the masks intended to prevent COVID infections but I know something about filters, so do most people with filter-equipped coffee-makers. With no more than that, let us examine the performance of the commonly used masks for COVID prevention, virus filters if you will. This is not rocket science, common sense will do. There are two aspects to the use of COVID masks: the user’s perspective and that of people near him.
The Benefit to Those Close-by
The person waring the mask emits both gases and particles of various sizes from the mouth, throat and lungs. These range from tiny viruses to droplets of saliva and lung fluids. Under normal circumstances there are relatively few such droplets generated but if the user coughs or sneezes he projects a dense shower of body fluids. It is therefore a kindness if one protects others by wearing a mask in such circumstances. Though masks are very useful in these cases, isolation is better.
The expelled fluids from normal respiration or coughs and so on, will contain viruses attached to droplets but the gases will also contain “free viruses.” While the gases and some droplets are always present in exhalations, the droplets are normally few. Nevertheless, minor amounts of fluids are constantly emitted and carry a load of viruses. The range at which the fluids are adequately dispersed depends on ambient air circulation, temperature, humidity and the initial size and quantity of droplets emitted. That is why, generally speaking, outdoor venues where breezes disperse the emitions more rapidly, are less likely to require masks.
This is important in that the concentration of infectious material makes a big difference to the possibility of infection. A very small amount of infectious material can be tolerated by most people without developing the disease. As the quantity of infectious organisms increases, successive cohorts of increasingly susceptible people acquire a dose that their organisms cannot tolerate and they become ill. At the same time, some people have enough resistance to any given infectant to be completely resistant. This cohort won’t even develop symptoms, no matter the dose of the infectant. These fortunate people are said to be “auto immune” though they can infect others. Typhoid Mary was such a person.
Volatilized viruses continue to circulate in droplets or alone until they come in contact with a victim, a surface, or expire without any intervention. Viruses generally become inactive after a time otherwise we might all be dead from the accumulation of bygone pandemics. How long these free-ranging viruses persist in the ambient atmosphere depends on temperature, humidity and the presence of disinfectant gases and surfaces. In sunlight and in the open their concentration will rapidly diminish and present little threat.
The masks normally used against COVID are porous and some effusions are bound to go through them. Depending on the type of mask used and how it is worn this amount can vary greatly. COVID masks are no guarantee that infectious organisms will not enter the ambient atmosphere, they only reduce the concentration of those that get through if the masks are properly applied.
So, from the perspective of people around the mask wearer the protection of the mask is not a sure thing but very useful if the wearer is a “spitty” talker, or coughs, or sneezes, or has a serious infection so that his emanations are high in the content of infectious organisms.
Doctors and hospital staff use masks to protect vulnerable patients from the physician’s own emitions, though self-protection from infectious patients is also an issue. Medical personnel, are well trained and use high quality, fresh, masks. This is a far cry from the situation of common users. I have no idea of the relative efficacy of the same masks when used by these two populations but the use of surgical masks is nothing like what one encounters in grocery stores.
To improve the effectiveness of commonly used COVID masks one requirement should be familiar to all veterans, and all thoughtful people; the masks must be tight on the face so all ventilation goes through the filtering material. Wearing the mask below the nose defeats its purpose to some extent as does a loose fit of the mask to the face. Both those conditions are common in stores and public places I attend. The waring of such masks offers less protection to those in one’s vicinity. On the other hand, effective COVID masks make breathing difficult and many wearers lower them below the nose out of necessity.
The Benefits to the User
All the requirements mentioned above apply to the wearer using the mask for personal protection. In particular the need to have a tightly fitting mask to prevent the ingestion of unfiltered particles via gaps in the fit. Some people also wear plastic visors, or sit behind see-through screens when dealing with the public. This is a sensible, though not a 100% effective addition. The eyes are very susceptible to COVID virus entry into the body. Goggles would be more effective. Otherwise, particles containing viruses can avoid the mask, visor or screen and settle in the eyes. Wearing a transparent face shield without a mask is at best silly. On the other hand, masks do nothing to prevent infection via the eyes. Why is this not a big issue?
For the inhaler the mask is a filter of particles by forcing them to settle on the fibers of the mask as they wend their way through the filtering material. But coffee filters let through the coffee flavors and colors and most COVID masks are even more porous. Virus particles get filtered out by adsorbing on the surface of appropriate fibers but can come free and proceed to be ingested with the next breath unless the mask contains suitable adsorbents and/or has a disinfecting agent on it. This agent, even if present initially, is usually lost with use, requiring the mask to be discarded or the disinfectant reapplied. Few people change masks as often as needed and most do not disinfect them or even launder them periodically.
Hospital professionals and some others may have their masks replaced in appropriate conditions but the average person is reluctant to pay for replacements of the more expensive and more effective masks. This makes the average mask more of a threat of various bacterial and viral infections since the concentrations of pathogens, normally present in the environment in low concentrations, will build up on the mask with use. Masks can then begin to smell bad, a sure sign of bacterial activity. The bacteria that live on the mask may be harmful and infect the wearer.
The wearer of a mask for self-protection is only protected at close quarters, at larger distances it does nothing useful. Moreover, the mask must be clean, disinfected, and properly worn, otherwise the protection is significantly reduced. How safe are you and millions of others if they do not meet these standards? Do we need mandatory training to increase the efficacy of masks mandated by the authorities?
We may yet find such a mandate facing us as “concerned” officials try to reduce hazards to zero. If the current trend of government-mandated “protection” measures continues, there is no end to increasingly sophisticated and burdensome enforcements. But zero risk is not achievable for the general public. In that case what level of protection is justifiable? I know of no objective quantitative measure of this. All I am aware of are disputed mandates and increased threats of legal sanctions aimed at non-compliers.
I wish compliance was encouraged by inducements and education rather than by threats embracing all, those at risk and the reasonably safe who want to make their own choices. Not all people are equally susceptible to infection or transmission, there ought to be a method of being more selective in the mandates being imposed. All-encompassing threats made by dangerously ill-informed or dangerously-politicized officials lead to a sick society.
Anti-COVID masks are not very effective in preventing infections in general. Professional users, wearing well-fitting and fresh masks and working at close quarters can expect the best results. But even then, not all will avoid infection. Hospital personnel have been infected with many diseases in the course of their duties while wearing masks and taking numerous other precautions. Average users, using ill-fitting masks for several days before changing, get little protection. Even well-fitting masks, properly worn, need to be gently washed periodically and treated with an appropriate disinfectant after each washing. Simple disinfectants such as those in some soaps should help.
My conclusion is that wearing the average mask, by the average citizen, in average non-crowded situations is not helpful enough to justify its bothersome aspects. General and all-encompassing mandates cross the line in terms of the bother/benefit ratio. Where masks do some good is when they are appropriately clean and disinfected, fit well, and are worn with due care in crowded circumstances.
Military gas masks usually require some training to be applied properly and maintained. The puny anti-COVID devices recommended, even mandated by authorities combating COVID, are more an exercise in keeping the population aware, and even worried, than they are in reducing infections in general. There is little science that shows a number of existing mandates to be worthwhile in terms of cost/effectiveness. Yet governments at various levels feel bound to impose mandates, despite the fact that mandates are intrusive and burdensome. In serving as a focus of dissent, the mask mandates have done a fine job. In controlling the spread of the COVID virus, the evidence, if any, is not as compelling.
I would like to see a quantitative evaluation of the benefits of mandated mask wearing. With no guidance for the individual to help one understand how the population and economy are affected by the generally unwelcome masks, skepticism and resistance finds fertile soil.
If future improvements introduce a training course, I want to know the additional costs of the hiring of more civil servants, perhaps creating a whole new bureaucracy, compared to the benefits expected to be gained. If the expectations do not measure up, the agencies and individuals responsible for the erroneous prognostications should be thoroughly investigated and if they were wrong or duplicitous, taken to task. Too much of what is promised by politicians and government officials is a lie or an ill-informed and self-serving tendency of not letting a disaster go to waste. There is little evidence of vigorous support among the population for coercive measures involving dubious health measures. Government measures that go against popular support are a danger to society, even if they are better than what the Populus wants.
The COVID epidemic is fertile ground for overwrought policies which exercise unjustified political power and are often ignored by the very elites that praise and implement them. The mask mandates create hosts of low-level criminals who ignore them at sporting and social events. Is that good for society? Is it wise to create mobs of scofflaws among average citizens in the face of weak evidence for a pressing need or a significant benefit of such wide-ranging mandates?
It is particularly irksome that we have frequent reports of our leading citizens and politicians who are ignoring, at expensive elite events they enjoy, the very thing they try to enforce on football fans? Do they know that the mandates are a sham and are simply there to cow us and make us more docile? If not, why is their misbehavior tolerated by our law and health enforcement agencies?
Let me see the cost/benefit evaluation involving generally mandated mask-wearing, regardless of circumstances. This evaluation should take into account costs in social and financial terms to individuals, businesses and society. I include society but here the damage includes that done to community spirit, respect for law and order, and many other social issues well beyond the COVID problem.
If the population was persuaded that masks are of great benefit and worth the inconveniences, people would praise the government and wear masks diligently. But this is not the case.