The short answer is yes, you should.
The long answer involves citing data from an article posted on The Annals of Internal Medicine.
Before we dive into that though, I want to highlight how contentious this topic has become. Public health officials began the pandemic by downplaying the usefulness of masks. Eventually they became indifferent and now, they are actively encouraging it. This pattern is true for the western world, but many Asian countries have long adopted masks, even prior to Covid-19. In times of turmoil, its difficult to parse through all of the conflicting messaging we receive, but luckily, we have data to reinforcement our conclusions now.
The study mentioned above sought to demonstrate the effectiveness of surgical and cotton masks. Of course, the N95 variants are specifically made to block viral particles but they are difficult to acquire. The study decided to omit that type because the benefits are obvious.
How about surgical and cotton variants?
The article doesn’t mince words, the study found these masks did not effectively filter SARS–CoV-2 during coughs by infected patients. That is rather depressing.
But, let me turn the tide by revealing the game of semantics at hand.
What does effectively mean? If a memory chip increased our storage capacity by 10%, would we say the chip is effective at doing its job? Maybe, but it depends on what the computer community would dub “effective”. That title may very well be reserved for chips that increase capacity by at least 50%. This doesn’t mean that a 10% increase isn’t useful. Especially when the alternative is nothing. We must be careful not to mix this terminology up.
Although surgical and cotton masks may not be effective they are without a doubt useful. This matters.
The study reported the following findings.
“The median viral loads after coughs without a mask, with a surgical mask, and with a cotton mask were 2.56 log copies/mL, 2.42 log copies/mL, and 1.85 log copies/mL, respectively.”
To clarify, a viral load is essentially the concentration of virus within a predetermined volume. The higher this value, the more virus present. As you can see, coughing without a mask produces the greatest viral load. A surgical mask reduces it marginally but a cotton mask has fairly significant impacts.
I believe these numbers speak louder once converted into percentages.
Compared with coughing without a mask (the control measure), a surgical mask reduces viral load by about 5.4%.
A cotton mask on the other hand reduces viral load by about 27.7%.
Would we call this effective? Maybe not. In the case of a surgical mask that is especially true.
Are these masks useful though? Yes, the data is clear on this.
During a pandemic, any reduction is useful. Whether that is 5% or 27%. Masks will not grant you immunity to infection, but they surely curb the degree to which you can infect others. A cotton mask may very well convert a contagious person from a virus machinegun to a water pistol.
It would be remiss of me to conclude the analysis here though. Thus far, we established that masks diminish viral loads. How about distance?
“We do not know whether masks shorten the travel distance of droplets during coughing. Further study is needed to recommend whether face masks decrease transmission of virus from asymptomatic individuals or those with suspected COVID-19 who are not coughing.”
Further research is needed to confirm to what extent masks impact the distance travelled of viral loads. The study focused on how concentrated the virus is, but range is a relevant consideration as well. Intuition tells me that this may also be concluded as not effective. But usefulness, that is almost certain.
A 5 – 20% reduction in infection range would be tremendous. Especially when considered in tandem with social distancing. We establish measures of reasonable space between individuals given that criteria. If we can be infected within 6 feet from an unmasked individual, how about with someone who does wear one? Could it fall to 5 feet? Maybe 4? Once again, this matters.
The data isn’t clear in this regard, but we already have ample reason to don masks. The usefulness is without question even if we don’t agree on whether it qualifies for the glorious title of effective. Semantics is a wonderful thing in the abstract realm but in the real world, we must not be dazzled nor discouraged solely by nomenclature.
I should also clarify the risks associated with masks. To tell one side of the story is irresponsible. At this point in time, it is widely believed facial touching is a predominant cause of infection. Having a mask on your face for extended periods can become uncomfortable. The temptation to adjust them presents an inherent threat of increasing your frequency of face touches. This may sound comical, but I’m not being facetious. This is likely the chief reason to avoid masks (aside from the economic implications of supply and demand). If you can consciously make an effort to wear masks without increasing facial touches, you’ll be in a net positive situation.
To conclude, I present my opinion on the politics of mask wearing. Hindsight is 20/20, but numerous health officials got this sorely wrong. It would be one thing to remain neutral until evidence surfaced. What we witnessed though was a sharp disregard for masks entirely during the early days of this pandemic. Whether that was due to supply concerns or genuine belief, it remains disappointing. I believe our experts are doing the best they can during these unprecedented times, but this reminds us that they are human as well. Not gods and elevating them onto a pedestal like that will inevitably blind you. Our standards for critical thinking can’t dissipate in times of crisis. Authoritarianism has historically risen in times of public panic. Of course, this is a major stretch when compared to our current situation, but it is still worthy of remembering.
The bottom line is the data proves masks are useful, maybe not effective per se. If you have one, wear it. If you can get one, get it. Better yet, if you can craft a cotton mask, do that. At the same time, keep your wits about you. The abhorrent opportunism and hoarding which we observed with toilet paper cannot be repeated. Think about the consequences of shortages. How do you expect nurses and doctors to perform their duties without protection? To tell a practitioner that they need to operate in a vulnerable state while they have family and loved ones of their own to consider, that is inhumane. Do not contribute to bringing about a grim reality as such. Buy within reason and obey orders to cease if public officials explain the supply implications. In short, be responsible.
The only way through this is together.