The Science Behind Masks

For months, the world’s most qualified doctors and scientists have pushed for people to wear masks as a precautionary measure against COVID-19. It is common knowledge that a simple, thick cloth mask can protect both you and the people around you from passing on the highly contagious virus. However, it can be a bit hard to believe that a simple piece of fabric can be a barrier between health and a dangerous sickness. How exactly can a mask protect you against a very dangerous and highly contagious virus, and how effective is it?
In the early stages of the pandemic, the CDC actually discouraged the use of masks. This was, of course, because the full scale of the virus’s contagiousness was not yet known at that time. The discovery that someone can contract the virus and be contagious without showing symptoms prompted the CDC to shift their views on public mask-wearing entirely. It is now recommended that everyone wear a mask in public as well as follow social distancing guidelines.

Real-life statistics support the idea that mask mandates can decrease the spread of COVID-19. A study was conducted where the percent changes of case rates were measured across fifteen states that had established a community mask mandate. Data was gathered from before and after the mandates were made. The data from this study is shown on the first graph above. The average change in daily case rates across the fifteen states significantly declined after the community mask mandates were put into place, proving that the mandates affected the number of cases. Another part of the study showed this same data being collected from twenty states with employee mask mandates (mandates that only affect employees in a work environment). This data, displayed in the second graph above, showed no correlation between the mandate being put into place and the daily case rates across the twenty states, proving that these mandates were ineffective. This is because transmission can still occur in public areas outside of the workplace.

So how exactly does a mask protect against the virus? Even the simplest thick cloth masks have the ability to block respiratory droplets that may contain traces of COVID-19. They can be generated when speaking, coughing, and breathing, and can land on surfaces or stay in the air. A study was conducted where respiratory droplets generated through speech were visualized through laser-light scattering, providing a visual on how many droplets were released into the air through the simple act of speaking. A video frame of the visualized droplets, as well as graphed data from the study, is shown on the image above. Some of the frames showed hundreds of droplets present, ranging in size from 20 to 500 micrometers.The study also recorded the amount of droplets present when someone speaks with a slightly damp cloth over their mouth, which was significantly less than the amount present without a face covering. This study proved that a thick enough face covering can significantly reduce the amount of respiratory droplets that are released into the air, therefore reducing the likelihood of transmitting COVID-19 through these droplets.

Masks have been proven effective in reducing the spread of respiratory droplets and restricting the spread of COVID-19. However, based on the data collected on mask mandates, they work more effectively when everyone in public wears one. Masks can be bought online, or they can be made out of something as simple as an old T-shirt. Click this link for more information on how to choose and properly wear a mask. The more people that wear masks in public and adhere to the social distancing guidelines, the less transmission will occur and the more people will stay safe and healthy.

For more information:
https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2007800
https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2020/06/417906/still-confused-about-masks-heres-science-behind-how-face-masks-prevent
https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/10.1377/hlthaff.2020.00818
https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-mask/art-20485449

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Emma Galbraith

Emma Galbraith is the Editor of Arts & Culture at The Deliberator. In her free time, she likes to read books and research how humanity can solve climate change.

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