Masks have gotten a lot of air time this past year. We're not talking about the feathery sequined kind you see at Venetian carnivals or Cirque de Soleil. We're talking about medical masks and the difference between the throwaway blue 3-ply masks, N95s and KN95s, gaiters, shields, and various fabrics and materials. The ones that have become mocked, reviled, politicized, turned into fashion statements, sought after, and worn with relief in this strange, hopefully once-in-a-lifetime year-ish that have made us really appreciate fresh air and truly understand how illness gets spread.
Medical masks became part of a strategy to stop germs from entering wounds and prevent sepsis in the 1880s but didn't become de rigeur until the last pandemic in 1918-19 when they were shown to prevent the wearer from contracting influenza. During that pandemic (which is estimated to have killed somewhere between 20-50 million people, showing us that both metrics and medicine have come a long way), people revolted against wearing masks and shutting down churches, saloons, theaters, and sporting events just like today. So don't worry if you think we've regressed as a species. We're pretty much basically the same.
Anyway, disposable masks are generally made with synthetic fibers which mesh to prevent diffusion and therefore prevent pathogen transmission through droplets and aerosols between people. N95 and KN95 masks (rated as such by the USA and China respectively) offer the best protection against infection—95% protection—unless you want to go full-on hazmat and start wearing a gas mask, but let's not go over the deep end.
Gaiters, those fabric neck warmers that come up over your face, and bandanas both have more porous fabrics and generally tend to be less effective than professionally manufactured masks, but if you're going to wear them, double them up for maximum effect. On the other side of the equation, fabrics like vinyl and plastic that don't breathe at all should be avoided. Oxygen is essential to survival and swimming in your own CO2 is a contraindication to being alive.
Shields, those plastic guards that make you look like a welder, are ineffective on their own, but render masks, worn properly, to be more effective. Also ineffective: wearing a mask over your mouth but leaving your nose uncovered. Air still comes out of your nose. Wearing a mask without covering both your mouth and nose is basically the same as not wearing a mask.
While some question the effectiveness of masks, data continues to pour in that suggests otherwise. As we've discussed, some masks are better than others and infection by any airborne disease is a question of exposure over time (for a brilliant primer on viral aerodynamics and the risks of getting Covid, check out researcher Erin Bromage's blog post). I know, you never thought the words "brilliant primer" and "viral aerodynamics" could occupy the same thought, let alone sentence. But seriously, read it. Pass it on. It will make you rethink eating birthday cake after someone has blown their aerosols all over it.
As we get vaccinated and try to reach herd immunity, most people want to escape masks. I get it. Masks are claustrophobic. They fog your glasses up. (Unless you are wearing an N95 or KN95 which seal your air from rising up.) They make it difficult to eat and drink. But they also save lives, prevent the spread of Covid, and keep our front line medical workers from becoming inundated and burning out.
The most important point about wearing masks is this: YOU DON'T WEAR THE MASK SO MUCH TO PROTECT YOURSELF (unless it's an N95 or KN95). YOU WEAR THE MASK TO PROTECT OTHER PEOPLE. So do unto others and do your part.
For more on health and safety during events, check out PopUP CleanUP's YOUR ULTIMATE LIVE EVENT GAME PLAN.