Thoughts on masks during the Coronavirus Pandemic
by Ken Becker
I’ve been holed up in Casa Becker for four weeks now with lots of time to think. I’ve been thinking of the food supply chain and the brave workers at the grocery and other retail stores, the folks who keep our utilities going, and all the other essential workers. If we lose them to Coronavirus illness, we will be in real trouble.
As it is now, the general public is inconvenienced but mostly calm. Without food, other products, or utilities there would be panic.
What to do? My thoughts have turned to masks. In my spare time, which I seem to have plenty of these past two weeks, I’ve been researching internet facts about masks and concluded that the public wearing masks could make a difference.
Without getting “too deeply into the weeds”, a few facts would be helpful so we all are on the same page:
• The Coronavirus is about 0.125 micron diameter.
• A micron is 1/1,000,000 of a meter.
• For comparison, human hair is about 75 microns.
• Coronavirus is airborne, which means that when an infected person breaths out or coughs, the virus will be expelled into the air, usually as an aerosol. In simple terms, the virus is in a droplet from the person.
• The aerosol, can range from 0.25 micron or smaller to 5 microns or larger.
• A large 5 micron aerosol will drop to the ground in around 10 minutes in still air.
• A smaller aerosol will linger in the atmosphere longer or may evaporate leaving the Coronavirus all by itself in the air for a half hour or so.
• Officials say Coronavirus is airborne, although when it drops to a surface the virus will stay on a surface like door knobs, countertops, etc., up to a few days.
As far as masks go, the gold standard is the N95 mask which will take out 95% of particles 0.3 micron or larger. So the N95 mask will take out many of the Coronaviruses in the air but not all. Surgical masks don’t have a universal efficiency standard like N95 masks, but we know they will only take out a percentage of larger particles like Coronaviruses in aerosols.
In conclusion, any mask will take out some but not all of the Coronaviruses.
How do we protect the grocery store clerk and other workers we depend on? If the customers all wear masks, a good percentage of the large aerosols will be captured in the mask. The number of small Coronaviruses floating in the air will be less, and the workers will have less chance of getting sick. The public wearing masks makes a difference.
Of course, there aren’t enough masks for our health care professionals who really need them let alone the public. So what can we do? There have been calls for citizens to make “homemade” cloth masks. I found two studies (Cambridge and Netherlands) which indicate that “homemade” cloth masks are not as good as surgical masks which aren’t as good as N95 masks, but they do some good. This has to do with removal efficiency as well as fit. Published data indicates that a “homemade” cloth mask is about 2/3 as effective as a surgical mask. Is that good enough? Well, the Cambridge researchers concluded, “it’s better than nothing”.
Actually, it’s a whole lot better than nothing. And, a cloth mask has the benefit that once you have it, you can wash it and use it over and over. No more going from store to store searching in vain for a mask. No more taking masts needed by essential workers.
What to do? I live in the small town of Burien, WA, which has a population of 50,000, or so. If we could all get together and make cloth masks, and the mayor could decree that only social distance practicing cloth mask wearers can go into the store, the workers would be less exposed to airborne Coronavirus. They would still have to worry about the Coronavirus on surfaces, but that’s a problem for hand washing and sanitizing. There would be a benefit to the mask wearer, too; there would be less Coronaviurs in the air to breathe in plus some protection from their mask.
Would we go for this? I don’t know. In America we don’t have a culture of wearing masks in public. In the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, San Francisco, California, passed a law requiring everyone to wear masks in public, but the powerful “Anti-Mask League” was able to get the law rescinded after a short time.
Maybe we have changed. Maybe the Coronavirus pandemic will lead us to change for the better in many ways.