With that out of the way, let's be real about something else: Masks work. Recently, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Robert R. Redfield, MD, explained just how effective they are in one heart-stopping sentence: “If all of us would put on a face covering now for the next 4-6 weeks, we could drive this epidemic to the ground.”
Despite the fact that we could make our lives infinitely better in every way imaginable (and save people from dying) by simply masking up, a lot of us are trying to find reasons not to wear them because—again—they're terrible, and because we may have read or heard faulty information about them. This is not okay. There are no good reasons not to wear them, except in rare cases wherein an individual suffers from severe respiratory disease.
Before you say, "But... [insert mask myth here]," keep reading. Below, epidemiologists debunk nine of the most common mask myths, aka reasons given for refusing to wear the masks that can save lives, get our children back to school, restart the economy (safely), and generally shorten the period of misery associated with the ongoing pandemic.
The most outrageous mask myths, debunked
Myth 1: There's no science to support wearing masks
But... there is. According to Timothy Brewer, MD, professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA, a meta-analysis published in the Lancet medical journal in June looked at a breadth of studies conducted on the matter and concluded that mask-wearing resulted in an 80-85 percent reduction in transmission. "There have been other studies as well," he says. "We are continually accumulating more data to suggest that masks are beneficial."
I know what you're thinking: In the earliest days of the pandemic, masks were not recommended—what's the deal with that? Essentially, says Dr. Brewer, at that stage in this novel pandemic (with novel meaning that no one had experience with this particular virus prior to the pandemic), we did not yet have any data to suggest that asymptomatic people (those infected with no symptoms) benefitted from wearing masks. We now know better, as we've learned that both asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic (infected, but not yet symptomatic) carriers can be contagious.
Myth 2: You don't need to wear a mask if you don't have symptoms
To that end, we now know that you do need to wear a mask even if you don't have symptoms, because you might still be infected and you can still infect others. "Since we can't easily identify [asymptomatic] individuals, having people wear masks ensures that if you are infected and don't realize it when you cough, talk, sneeze, or breathe, any respiratory droplet particles coming out of your mouth and nose will get caught in the mask and are less likely to be disseminated to other individuals," says Dr. Brewer.
Myth 3: You don't have to wear a mask if you've already had COVID-19
Unfortunately, new research suggests this is not the case. A study conducted at King's College London showed that antibody levels—which represent a level of immunity to reinfection—in some COVID-19 survivors dropped precipitously after three months. Sixty perecent had developed a strong antibody response immediately while infected, but only 17 percent retained it at the end of the testing period. This suggests that a significant percentage of individuals who recover from COVID-19 are vulnerable to contracting it again. For this reason, survivors need to mask up in order to protect others (and themselves—see Myth 9, below).
Myth 4: Cloth masks aren't effective
Actually, there is a hierarchy in the effectiveness of masks, says Dr. Brewer; however, this doesn't mean that cloth masks/face coverings aren't effective. In fact, they're between 94 and 96 percent effective, according to laboratory studies which looked at the masks' abilities to catch droplets dispersed through simulated coughing or talking. Surgical masks are then around 98 percent effective, and N95 respirator masks are around 99.99 percent effective. So, while cloth masks are the least effective of the three, they are still pretty damn good at catching droplets.
Here's more intel from a doctor about how to live as "normal" a life possible (while still staying safe) during the pandemic:
Myth 5: If masks worked, we wouldn't need to socially distance
The overall idea behind the various recommended coronavirus precautions—hand washing, social distancing, and mask wearing—is to reduce the number of people infected by each infected individual. According to Dr. Brewer, each of the above measures chips away at spread, meaning we gain some containment from each one. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science last month showed that the combination of physical distancing and mandated mask-wearing was more effective than doing either one alone. "The reason we need to do both is because the benefits are additive," says Dr. Brewer.
Myth 6: Masks can cause carbon dioxide poisoning
Jennifer Horney, PhD, professor and founding director of the University of Delaware’s epidemiology department, finds this myth curious in that it's actually an argument for masks being super effective at keeping things out—and therefore also at keeping them from getting in (i.e., protecting people from the coronavirus).
This faulty logic aside, Dr. Brewer says there is no data he's aware of that shows anything of the sort. He points out that N95 respirator masks actually have to be fitted to the individual to make sure there's no leakage, and even that level of intense masking offers no health harm to the wearer. "Certainly a surgical mask or cloth facial covering is no concern at all," he says.
With that said, there are certain individuals who should consult with a physician before masking up. "Masks are not recommended for individuals with structural disease of their mouth or nose or throat that might interfere with their ability to breathe, people with severe underlying lung disease, and children under the age of two." When I ask him if this caveat includes people with asthma, he says he can't offer a blanket guideline. "Anyone who has underlying respiratory disease and might be concerned about whether they would have a problem wearing a mask or facial covering should get in touch with their health care provider," he says.
Myth 7: Oxygen levels drop dramatically when masked
Just as you aren't going to OD on the carbon dioxide you inhale while masked, you also aren't going to be gasping for oxygen. A South Carolina doctor went viral for demonstrating her oxygen saturation rate (aka the amount of oxygen in the blood) while wearing three types of masks, including the most restrictive (an N95 respirator mask AND a surgical mask). It hovered at 98-99 percent (super healthy) in each test, which was consistent with her measured rate when not wearing a mask. In other words, wearing a mask did not affect her ability to intake oxygen at all. (Plus, as Dr. Horney points out, you can always go somewhere safe and remove the mask if you feel you need a break—it's not glued to your face.)
Myth 8: Mask-wearing weakens the immune system
One myth making the rounds on social media claims that mask-wearing reduces exposure to germs and therefore weakens the immune system. Dr. Brewer says there is absolutely no evidence to support this. For starters, he explains, there is no evidence that healthy adult-age individuals with no underlying immunodeficiencies need to have constant exposures to maintain their immune systems. But beyond that, you have constant exposures all the time, with or without a mask. "We have billions of bacteria that live in and on our body, in our intestine, and on our skin," he says. "And those bacteria are in a symbiotic relationship with our immune systems, so our immune systems are getting stimulated constantly."
Myth 9: Masks only protect others, so they don't protect you if others don't wear them
Initially, it was believed that mask-wearing was a protective measure for others rather than for yourself; in other words, you didn't benefit, but those around you did. New research, however, suggests that masking up is an effective way to protect yourself from infection, too. Essentially, wearing a mask mediates the amount of virus you take in if you're exposed to an infected individual, and what we know about the coronavirus is that the more exposed you are to it, the sicker you're likely to get. So while wearing a mask won't protect you fully if an unmasked jerk at Costco coughs in your face, it can reduce the amount of virus you're exposed to and potentially prevent you from getting critically ill. In November, the CDC actually expanded its guidance on masks to reflect growing research around the efficacy of mask-wearing from an individual protection perspective. In other words, it (finally) advocated for the wearing of masks not just selfless reasons but selfish reasons, too.
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