The Science is In: Masks Work!

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Oh my gosh, I have more good news to talk about! Let’s talk about masks!

Back when COVID-19 first started picking up steam, experts weren’t too sure where to stand on masks. Are they effective? Do they need to be N-95? Do they cause more harm than good? And after a whole lot of data-crunching, they realized “Oh shit the answer is yes, no, and no: everyone needs to be wearing a mask right the eff now. It doesn’t matter what kind. Just cover your filthy mouth.”

Because it turns out that what we knew was true about many other viruses is also true of coronavirus: if you can stop people from expelling wet bits of nastiness every time they breathe out or, god forbid, sneeze and cough, you can drastically reduce the spread of the disease. In other words, my mask protects you. Your mask protects me. Everyone wearing a mask will protect everyone.

And I do mean “everyone,” because today’s good news is a study just published this month by the Royal Society in which researchers found that face masks can drastically decrease the spread of coronavirus to the point of stopping a second spike even if stay-at-home orders are partially lifted.

Before we get into it, a word of warning: this is a model. Models have not been great during this particular crisis. Which makes sense! Models only work when you have a metric fuck ton of data to put into them, and there just wasn’t that much data at the start of this pandemic. So many unknowns! So many shady governments hiding things, or not testing enough people! 

We do now have a lot more information than we used to, though, so it’s possible that these researchers’ model is accurate. They looked at the spread of COVID-19 via surfaces and face-to-face contact on a large population level, and found that if 100% of people use masks, we can keep the virus from re-emerging even when we lift stay-at-home measures. That’s important because at this point, with a significant lack of testing and contact tracing, we need to figure out how to live our lives until doctors develop a vaccine. Usually, vaccines take about a decade to make — the fastest vaccine creation of all time was 4 years, when the mumps vaccine was approved in 1967. We can throw money at this problem to make it a little better, though, and right now we are. For instance, doctors can work on multiple vaccines at once in the hope that one will eventually prove effective. Still, though, that’s probably a good one to two years away, so in the meanwhile we have to learn to live with the disease.

The facemask modeling showed that we don’t have to be quarantined until the vaccine is developed, or until testing becomes more widespread, so long as everyone works together and wears masks in public. It even slows the spread of the disease if at least half of the population wears masks in public. That includes homemade fabric masks, which the model assumed would be 50% effective at stopping the spread of the virus. Research shows that homemade fabric masks are anywhere from 50 to 80% effective at reducing the spread, so 50% sounds like a safe assumption. And just to be safe, they also ran a model assuming that the mask-wearer quadrupled his own chance of contamination by touching his own face and mask, and found that it was still a highly effective means of cutting down the spread, because most of the benefit comes from the mask stopping the infected person from blowing out particles, as opposed to a mask stopping an uninfected person from breathing them in.

This optimistic model pairs with some real world examples, like the recent news that two hair stylists in Missouri wore masks while tending to 140 customers, all of whom also wore masks. Both hair stylists were, unbeknownst to them, sick with COVID-19. But after two weeks, there was no outbreak as experts worried. They offered all the customers free testing but only 46 accepted. None of the people tested were sick. That’s a pretty damned good test, considering that styling hair forces two people to be in close contact with one another for an extended period of time, usually chatting and breathing on each other. And compare that to the many, many instances we have in which outbreaks start thanks to funerals, birthday parties, and bars that open without requiring anyone to wear a mask.

So yeah, wear a mask! Make your own, buy one, whatever. Personally, for a long time I’ve been using a simple handkerchief because I have a lot of them and I can match with my dog, though recently I upgraded to one of these tube thingies because I thought it might be better while running. If you really don’t want your mask to go anywhere, get one of the ones that loop around your ears. You can even make one with a handkerchief and some hair elastics. So long as you cover your disgusting mouth and nose, you’re good to go. And remember, the best thing will always be limiting your contact with other humans. When in doubt, don’t go out. See? It rhymes. It must be true.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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