Mixed messages about masks

Medical experts in this country have implored us to stop buying masks. No problem. There are none to be had.

We’re told masks don’t help and the (insufficient) supply is needed for health care providers and areas most impacted by the virus.


Masks won’t help protect us from the virus, yet they’re needed for health care providers because, I assume, they offer protection. How exactly do they protect health care providers but not a regular Joe (no relation to Biden)?

And just to be clear, I’m talking about two different kinds of masks, each of which has a different application: surgical masks (the soft, pastel-colored ear-loop type) and N95 masks (the type many who work in construction and other trades use, as well as those in healthcare settings).

If a healthy person wears a surgical mask, the mask won’t keep pathogens out. But if an infected person wears this kind of mask, the mask will help keep pathogens in should the person not cover their cough or sneeze.

N95 masks filter aerosols, which are smaller than droplets and which can hang in the air for several hours after an infected person coughs or sneezes. This type of mask helps protect the person wearing it from inhaling these aerosols.

The primary mode of transmission for this virus appears to be droplets, which are larger than aerosols, and which fall rapidly after being expelled, landing on the first surface they hit. However, there are reports that it’s not known if the virus can also spread via aerosols, as well as reports that state that the virus can spread this way.

Fast forward to households where at least one member has contracted the coronavirus but doesn’t require hospitalization. Irrespective of where they recover, they will be contagious, even if they have no symptoms. For those who are infected and recovering at home, the recommendation is for the entire household to self-quarantine for at least 14 days.

Wouldn’t it be helpful if Americans could have both types of masks on hand for this kind of scenario? Dr. Fauci (a key figure in our national response who I increasingly look upon with a skeptical eye) has stated that we should hope for the best while preparing for the worst. OK. Duh. So, wouldn’t being prepared involve having masks on hand in every household for appropriate use, if needed?

I understand that in the face of a mask shortage, things are being prioritized. And, of course, those on the front lines need them most. But if someone in your house contracts this virus, you’ll be on the front lines, too.

Most Americans don’t live in gigantic homes where a sick person can be isolated. And even then, they will need care. Someone will have to go in and out of their room to bring food and help them with other needs.

So just how is a typical household in America supposed to stay safe if someone in the house gets infected?

Related to that, as Italy’s number climb higher by the hour, I wonder how many people who are getting infected did so because someone in their household was infected. After all, Italy has been on lockdown for a while now, and yet the infection rate continues to skyrocket.

This all makes me wonder if we’re sitting ducks if someone in our household who contracts the virus and is recovering at home and we have no masks for the sick person to wear to help contain droplets (and/or aerosols) or for the caregiver to wear for protection.

One can’t help but appreciate the irony of our government telling us to implement social distancing while also prescribing self-quarantines for entire households with an infected person while there are insufficient supplies to keep the virus from spreading within the household. This is tantamount to creating a situation that is precisely what we’re trying to avoid out in public.

I hope we can ramp up production so caregivers at home can have everything they need to keep themselves and others in the household safe.

(For additional information on viral transmission, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Image credit: USAF

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