©2020 Kari Carlisle
Once again, a complex and potentially life-altering decision has been reduced to a meme.
A few days ago, a chart was posted on social media that demonstrates how utterly useless the wearing of masks is to protect oneself from getting COVID-19. Actually, it did NOT demonstrate that, but people who do not think critically interpreted the information in that way and shared the post as proof that people who wear masks are stupid and useless and should be shot for propagating the scamdemic and destroying the economy and we should just go back to normal and let the people who are going to get it just die already.
Now, I’m aware that the people who actually feel this way are in the minority, and there’s not likely anything I’m going to write in this post to change their minds. What really bothers me is that someone who wants to wear a mask could be bullied, or even convinced, into not wearing one. I’m writing this post for you. Just because a chart says a bandana is only 1.6% effective does not mean that your mask is letting in 98.4% of COVID-19 virus coming out of a sickened person’s mouth.
There are many factors at play in a person’s exposure to the virus, whether they experience symptoms or not, which symptoms they get, how infectious they become, how quickly they recover, and whether or not they succumb to the disease, and we’ll look at a few of those here.
But first, there’s a very important concept that everyone should be educated about, but NO ONE is talking about it. It’s called viral load.
Viral load refers to the quantity of virus one is exposed to. We tend to think in terms of black and white, sick or not sick. But the amount of virus can make a difference in the extent of the disease. This could explain why many people are exposed to COVID-19 and don’t exhibit any symptoms, but that’s really too simplistic an explanation, considering the plethora of other factors involved. Allow me to provide an example to illustrate the concept of viral load:
If you have allergies like me, you know how uncomfortable they can be – nasal discharge, inflammation, itchy and watery eyes, post-nasal drip, etc. Many seasonal allergies flare up during the spring bloom with all the pollen flying around. I watch the daily weather report more for the pollen count than the temperature.
Imagine pollen is like a virus. Pollen is much bigger in size, but it gets into your airways and causes an immune response, so it’s similar in that regard. If you’re allergic to pollen and go out and sit in the middle of a field of blooming whatever-you’re-allergic-to, you’re pretty much assured of getting a full-blown allergy attack, right? So you don’t do that. You stay inside, avoid going out on windy days, and you may do something to manage the symptoms, but your symptoms wouldn’t be as bad as if you went and sat out there and huffed all that pollen intentionally.
The point here is that you make an effort to reduce your exposure, and even if you’re exposed, the immune response is reduced. This year’s allergies have been pretty bad for me. The first couple of weeks were miserable. One day, I almost didn’t walk the dogs because it was windy and I knew I would regret it, and then I thought I would try wearing the cotton mask I have for grocery runs. What a difference! Wearing the mask every day reduced the amount of pollen I was exposed to, and I was able to walk the dogs without sneezing and blowing my nose half the time. In fact, the whole rest of the days I wore a mask outside were better than the days I had not worn a mask. I even slept better at night.
Now, let’s transfer this example to coronavirus. A COVID-19 virus is about .1 microns. Pollen ranges from 2.5 to 200 microns, about 25 microns on average, so viruses in general are way smaller than pollen and therefore more difficult to block from our airways. But remember, even if you become exposed, taking measures to reduce your exposure and reduce viral load can save your life.
Let’s talk a bit about that meme I mentioned that “demonstrates” how ineffective masks are so why bother wearing them…. If that’s the case, why are medical professionals bothering to wear them? Why has the sourcing of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) been such a big deal? Why have citizens all over the world taken to their sewing machines to sew countless cotton masks for those on the front lines with limited access to PPE?
Yes, there is absolutely a huge difference between the effectiveness of a cotton mask compared to an N95. An N95 is 96% effective in blocking the virus and homemade ones are not as effective, but that doesn’t mean we should not bother to wear a mask. Let’s do the math…
You head out to the grocery store to pick up a few things. It just so happens that someone infected with COVID-19 is in the same store at the same time. But like you, he is wearing a face covering, let’s say, a bandana. A bandana is the least effective at blocking the virus, but we assume that it’s doubled up, so that helps block about 3-5% of the virus. Not much, especially if this random stranger walks up to you and coughs through the bandana into your face, but let’s assume no one is actually doing that.
Now, this infected guy is likely blowing some virus particles into the air, but some of them are being blocked by his face covering (3-5%). The ones that get through, the larger ones are falling to the ground pretty quickly, within a few seconds, so if you’re keeping your distance, you’re okay. The smaller particles that stay airborne for a few minutes, maybe even as much as an hour or two, are the ones that you have to worry about. But even then, not if the store has air circulating efficiently enough; those smaller particles are being blown out of the building or landing on surfaces (wash your hands, don’t touch your face). They are not all 100% being blown through your mask and into your nose.
But let’s say you walk behind this guy down an aisle and become exposed to a fraction of the virus that makes it through his mask. You wouldn’t be exposed to the entire 95-97% that makes it through his mask. Most of it would disperse pretty quickly, but let’s say you got a bad dose of 20% of what initially came out of his mouth. Not good, but you added a coffee filter between the layers of your bandana. The coffee filter adds at least 50-60% blocking power to your bandana. Your mask may have just blocked 65% or more of the virus you were exposed to walking right behind an infected person.
Hmm, but that means potentially 45% or more of that guy’s less than 20% actually got in. That sucks. May as well not bother with the mask then, right? Remember viral load? So maybe you got a little bit of virus, but maybe your immune system with be much better equipped to fight it off than if you neither of you were wearing anything at all. Every year during cold and flu season, someone mentions getting a “bad cold” or a “mild cold.” Viral load can be a factor (among others) in determining the severity of symptoms.
Now, let’s say the infected guy also used a coffee filter. And you maintained sufficient distance – add up those numbers, and you may just avoid direct exposure altogether. Whether this pandemic is being blown out of proportion as some believe, it is out there and people are dying. You may not personally be in a high-risk group for complications, but you’re not completely immune, and surely you know people who are at risk.
Can we all just please err on the side of caution? At the very least, reduce your viral load if you do become infected and protect the people around you. The hundreds of thousands of people who have died already around the world, they may not be anyone you know, and they may represent a tiny fraction of the people alive on the earth, but they are still people, people who suffered a horrible death, people who left behind grieving loved ones. And some of those people are famous, some of them entertained us, and some of them never reached their full potential in life. We will never know what kind of world might have blossomed from the impact of a genius or a prodigy that died.
Please wear a mask, and please respect people’s space. You might save your own life. You might save someone else’s life. No, it’s not 100% foolproof, but neither is an N95. Medical professionals still get sick, and some die. It’s not because their masks were worthless. It’s because they were exposed, even using N95s and face shields, to such a large viral load because of the amount of time they spent in constant exposure to the virus. You have a much better chance of limiting your exposure, but only if you understand viral load and take appropriate measures to reduce your exposure.
Finally, there will be those who choose not to wear a mask. A battle is brewing between the masked and the unmasked. I have already been targeted for a good talking-to about how this whole thing is overblown. On the flip side, I’ve found myself seething with anger walking into a store and seeing the majority not wearing masks. This is all still new to all of us, and we will need to find a way to manage our reactions. As I wrote earlier, this post is written to empower you and encourage you to wear a mask for safety, yours and those around you. You will piss people off with that decision. Don’t let it deter you. And you will be pissed off. Don’t assume the worst in others.
I hope this post gave you the courage to do what you know is the right thing to do. Others may mock you or avoid you and maybe even try to convince you that you’re stupid. Just tell them you’re trying to reduce your viral load and walk away. Maybe they’ll look it up.
Wearing a mask is an important measure to take to limit your exposure to COVID-19, and it’s not the only one. Maintaining social distancing while you’re out assures that the larger respiratory droplets fall to the ground before they reach you. And if you’re in a region that’s hunkered down, stay hunkered down. If you’re in a region that’s loosening restrictions (or has none), stay hunkered down as much as possible anyway. Of course, everyone wants things to go back to normal, but the reality we’re in today is not going away for quite a while. We will adapt. But until we beat this down to a manageable level (through vaccine, treatment, herd immunity), we will need to remain vigilant.
There are also a few things you can do to strengthen your immune system so that if you’re exposed to any illness, you’ll be able to fight it off better. The top three are 1. get enough sleep every night, 2. eat clean, healthy foods, especially green, leafy vegetables, and 3. get plenty of exercise. Doing these will help you maintain a healthy weight, reduce your stress levels, and NOT GET SICK. Keep bad habits like sitting and drinking to moderate levels. Stay hydrated. And it won’t hurt to take some extra vitamin C and vitamin D3.
As they say, we’re all in this together. That means we all have a responsibility to limit exposure between each other. And the icing on the cake is also not getting sick from the regular old colds and flus!
Be well and stay well!