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40 weeks —that’s the length of a normal pregnancy. Within that same amount of time, large segments of the population will either have been vaccinated, or will have begun the vaccination process, meaning that the first of two doses will be administered. With the vaccine produced by Pfizer with BioNTech, now being administered in the UK, the US, and other countries, late summer, the time when you’d be delivering were you to become pregnant right now, is expected to be about the longest anyone would have to wait to get a vaccine. Although, for many people, vaccination could come sooner, by early summer, spring, or any time prior to that. And so, there is light at the end of the tunnel; we are in the final stretch. Yet we are headed toward winter in the northern hemisphere with the numbers of cases of COVID-19 skyrocketing in the United States, so despite the coming vaccines, we are in a very dangerous time. To get through it, we need to keep the numbers down as much as possible, which means that you need to remain proactive and not let up on all of measures that we have been utilizing thus far. This means social distancing, and of course masking. This is no time to coast. This is no time to stop being aware of the need to be masked in public places, so let’s take this moment to review some basic information about masks and also to review the myths, since, there is still a great amount of misinformation circulating.
Sadly, the spread of misinformation about masks may be worsening, possibly in connection with various conspiracy hypotheses and anti-mask rhetoric being tweeted by the outgoing US President, Donald Trump. For many of you, this problem may strike close to home. Recently, as a result of connecting on Facebook with childhood schoolmates, some of whom I have not seen literally for decades, I learned that the brother of one such old classmate was —and still is— constantly posting conspiratorial-minded material, not only related to the recent election, but also to vaccines and masks. Similar to the anti-vaxer from the park whom I described more than a year ago —the young adult who had heard about scientists utilizing artificial intelligence to design and make vaccines faster and had misunderstood this to mean that the vaccines themselves were intelligent and were being used to track and control people— this individual, in his memes, is implying that he will refuse COVID-19 vaccination because, apparently, he believes that the vaccines will contain tracking devices. This is absurd and below there is a recent BBC article explaining all about this for further reading.
As you might imagine, the same individual is also telling people not to wear masks, his reason being that people who have worn masks have developed COVID-19 and that “a clinical study” found that masks do not protect people. Although I don’t think that this individual is broadcasting to many people at all, there is danger in the sense that he is one of millions who have been misled in the current environment, one of many who have been gaslighted. And many of those others, sadly are reaching bigger audiences, thereby exacerbating the confusion. Thus, in reviewing the basics of masking, we’ll touch on what this person posted about people getting sick despite wearing masks and clinical studies.
The first point, is that we must distinguish between benefits to the person wearing a mask and benefits to the surrounding people and those who will come into contact with them. It is actually true that there have been some studies published in the medical literature suggesting that the jury is still out regarding whether wearing a mask protects the wearer substantially from becoming infected with SARS-CoV2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), or merely provides minimal protection. When it comes to protecting other people, however, the data are very clear. Mask reduce the spread of the virus, significantly. So your first line of thinking must be that you are wearing a mask to help protect everyone else and that other people wearing masks is what protects YOU. Equate the mask with a condom for a man, worn to protect someone else from getting pregnant (yes, it also protects against transmission of sexually transmitted infections in both directions, but don’t spoil my analogy).
The next point is that there are different types of masks and they can be used correctly, or incorrectly. An N95 mask, or another type of respirator, does indeed protect the wearer, and will provide complete protection when combined with eye protection. To be effective, however, such a respirator mask must fit snugly on the face. It won’t work on a man with a beard. It won’t work on anyone, if it does not fit snugly, which means it has to be the appropriate size for your head and face. Some respirators, including some N95s, allow air and what’s in the air to be exhaled through valves; while such masks protect the wearer, they do not protect other people from the wearer, so they must be covered with second mask, such as a surgical mask. Also, if you have been exposed to people who are infected and shedding virus in droplets when they breathe, you can become infected in the process of removing your respirator mask, if you don’t remove it correctly, following procedures designed to prevent things from outside the mask from getting onto the T-zone of your face, or onto your fingers.
As for other face coverings, there are many factors coming into play that make it difficult to conduct clinical studies on the effectiveness of wearing a mask on protecting the wearer. The 3-layered masks are better than single layer masks at stopping the transmission of droplets in both directions, meaning from and to the wearer. As you have probably seen yourself, there is a lot of incorrect mask usage. Not covering the nose not only looks ridiculous, but also allows the wearer to spread spread the virus from the nose, and puts him or her and greater risk of being infected by others. People will give you all kinds of creative excuses about why their masks are not covering the nose. “I was getting ready to put it over my nose”, “I was only halfway through the process of getting my mask on when you caught me with my nose uncovered”, “it keeps falling down” —there is no shortage of such lines and they are pitiful excuses. When you don your mask, the nose is the first thing that should get covered. Doing this allows you to position the mask in the first place, and if there is a bendable metal strip it allows you to shape that around the nose. There is no moment in the mask donning process when the mouth should be covered without the nose covered. Similarly, any mask that falls down from your nose, either is not one tight enough, or it was not placed high enough over the nose in the first place. Several times, I have asked random people to pull their masks over their noses, only to see them pull the masks up just barely enough to hide the nostrils. Then, 10 seconds later, it falls down again and is bobbing up and down as they speak. You don’t do that with your pants; don’t do it with your mask. You need to position the mask higher than just the lower edge of your nose, as high as you can get it without the mask interfering with your vision. Another issue is what you do with your mask when it is not covering your face, especially right after a situation in which the mask may have been hit with droplets containing the virus. If you enter a public place with people who are not masked, or not masked correctly, and if you are masked, and then you leave and squoosh down the mask on your chin, and then infected droplets get to the inside surface of the mask and then you recover your mouth and nose, you can get infected that way. To get the most out of a mask, you need to think about what the mask is doing and ways that you might get infected, and account for those possibilities.