When to Wear a Mask and When You Can Skip It

(Bloomberg Opinion) - Science has a lot to say about the effectiveness of wearing a mask to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but communicating this science has corrupted dichotomies and that through a combination of party political divisions, sensational media stories, suspicion and falsehood Let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
The studies on masks are ambiguous, but this is typical of many health risk issues - from mercury contamination to cancer screening. It is still better to make decisions based on incomplete evidence than to ignore evidence altogether. In this case, it helps to add a dose of situational awareness and common sense.
The public health community got off with masks on the wrong foot, advising against wearing them, then suddenly flipping and telling us not to leave the house without them. Another complication of the picture is a mix of people's individual attitudes. Some members of the public still fear the virus and want to stay safe, others agree to their risk, but want guidance on how to be a good citizen - or at least perceived as one.
There are reasonably convincing studies showing that masks stop some of the particles that could get the virus out of people's mouths. This indicates the potential of masks to protect others. Then there are observational studies that deal with the use of masks in the real world.
On June 1, The Lancet published an analysis of 172 such studies, many of which were health-related. The authors concluded that wearing masks in combination with eye protection and social distance could reduce the spread of the virus, although the authors admitted a high degree of uncertainty.
Another study looked at mandatory mask wear by observing disease trends in Wuhan and New York City. However, several other researchers identified shortcomings in this study, which was published in the National Academy of Sciences procedure. The delay of one to two weeks between infection and test results suggests that infections in New York City decreased long before masks were mandatory. Some experts wanted the study to be withdrawn.
When multiple behavior changes occur at the same time, it may be impossible to link one of these changes to an increasing or decreasing number of cases.
This does not mean that the information in these studies cannot be useful. The doctor and infectious disease specialist Muge Cevik, who was a careful guide to relative risks, advised me that wearing other masks should inform the wearer of the spread of the virus. Finally, a consensus is beginning to emerge that there is negligible risk for other people outdoors and that very short encounters pose only a very low risk, e.g. B. People walking past you, running or cycling.
Common sense would suggest that wearing a mask offers only a negligible benefit and should be optional if an activity poses a negligible risk.
On the other hand, there are potential super-spreading events - wherever many people are locked up indoors, especially when there is close contact. Trump's planned rally in Oklahoma is a good example. There common sense would dictate that such events should not take place at all.
Then there is the middle ground. Wearing masks is probably best in environments where people have no choice but to interact in closed spaces - when shopping, when driving on public transport, when traveling, when cutting hair, or when visiting a doctor.
This middle category also gathers outdoors in large groups - for example during a protest. If most of the demonstrators wear a mask at all times, this will likely reduce the transmission.
Cevik, who works at the University of St. Andrews in the UK, pointed out that the six-foot rule works best outdoors, while aerosol particles can build up in poorly ventilated interiors and endanger people, even if they are never so close come to others. And the duration of the exposure plays a big role, so bus drivers, hair clippers and salespeople are at much higher risk than their customers. Your risk is very likely to decrease if customers wear masks.
Then there is a problematic category of activities, like eating in restaurants where masks cannot be worn consistently. Would guests get stuck trying to put on and take off masks with every bite? Some experts say that such “fiddling” with masks will only spread all viruses that the mask has detected. As a compromise, many restaurants place people outdoors and allow them to keep masks away while eating. Gyms and yoga studios pose a similar challenge.
The risks associated with close contacts and crowds seem obvious and intuitive. And yet the Americans were fixated on the unlikely possibility that infectious virus doses would fly off cyclists or sneak into packages. In response, some irrational practices for wearing masks have been adopted, e.g. B. stopping while driving or driving, but pulling down to gather and chat with groups of people.
And it's no surprise that politics would pervade the issue given the moral tone of the mask debate and the different messages in the mainstream and conservative media. In the United States, we have a portion of people who wear a mask all the time and a portion who never wears one. It would be better if everyone carried one, if it would probably help.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Faye Flam is a columnist in the Bloomberg Opinion. She has written for The Economist, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science, and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.
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