Are masks worth it?

Strong opinions on masks are widespread and devoutly-held. However, most fail to ask the million-dollar question: do masks actually help protect against COVID-19? So, here’s a breakdown of the various masks available in the market and their efficacy.

N95 mask

Surgical and medical masks

  • These masks are looser-fitting and prevent contact with sprays and droplets that may contain germs. However, they do not give the wearer a reliable level of protection against inhaling the small airborne particles that carry COVID-19. They are deemed effective for use by the general public. 
  • Effectiveness: blocks 63% of 0.01 μm particles, rising to 74% if two masks are worn.

Cloth and fabric masks

  • These masks protects against respiratory droplets that are released when the wearer talks, coughs or sneezes, or droplets that the wearer is exposed to.
  • Effectiveness: This is hugely varied. Home-made fabric masks have been banned by the French government due to their inefficacy. There are also masks available in the market that are so poorly made that they are only marginally better than wearing no mask at all. Industrially made fabric masks filter out 70% of 3 μm particles; this is larger than an airborne COVID-19 particle, but blocks the respiratory droplets measuring 5-10 µm that could be COVID-19 positive.

Keeping up appearances?

So, the masks that provide the most protection from COVID-19 – N95 – are not commonly used by the public. Other masks from fabric to surgical masks will grant partial but not full protection, and many of the masks available for public purchase are useless. Consider this alongside the reality that many loyal mask-wearers do not wash them after every use and re-use single-use masks, eradicating what effective properties they may have initially had. 

Why are people so married to masks when their specific effectiveness is incredibly difficult to accurately measure? Benchmarking mask-wearing’s true efficacy in isolation is a challenge, as it’s usually accompanied by other behaviours that drive down transmissions, such as hand-washing and social distancing. Studies have also been published that cast doubt on mask’s usefulness. A recently-published Danish paper studied adults during the pandemic’s early stages who spent over three hours outside, looking at how a recommendation to wear a face mask, versus no recommendation, affected infections in one month. The study said its findings should not be used to guide public health policy, but did conclude that advice to wear a face-covering did not reduce COVID-19 infections in an environment where other social restrictions were in place. The UK’s SAGE committee has also stated that the impact of widespread use of face coverings as a source control (reducing the emission of COVID-19 from an infected person) ranges from 7-45%. A very broad range for policy applied to the masses. 

Do people really wear masks for the right reasons? The approach to mask-wearing in public places is bizarre, impractical and inconsistent, be it wearing a mask to walk 5 metres into a restaurant to then sit down and remove your mask for your meal, or wearing a mask for the 5-second walk between stations at the gym. Perhaps people are uninformed about the level of protection the mask they buy will give them? More likely it’s an act of pandering more to appearing to care about COVID-19 than actually seeking to protect yourself and those around you. 

Partisanship breeds extremism

The most notable aspect of mask-wearing is the tribal attitude towards them; it’s perhaps no surprise that the US states that have enforced rules on mask-wearing strongly correlate with how people voted in the 2020 presidential election. It’s one example of how the pandemic has exacerbated the partisanship in our society. This has manifested in far more extreme events recently; Belgium’s leading virologist, Professor Marc Van Ranst, is currently hiding with his family in a safehouse because he is being targeted by a far-right sniper opposed to virologists and lockdowns, who is armed with military-grade weapons. What’s perhaps more concerning is that a now-disbanded Facebook group gathered 50,000 supporters for the sniper and his cause. 

Our leaders have created a society where extreme views are tolerated. It’s the consequence of pumping thin, one-sided arguments based on distorted data, and designed to rally heated emotion, into the public sphere. Freedom of speech means freedom of speech for all, and yet now 50,000 people think it’s appropriate to pledge support for a deranged assassin because they dislike COVID-19 and lockdowns. This era of partisanship is breeding a society where bullying, extremism and a lack of accountability are becoming the norm. The case of Belgian’s virologist is this example in the extreme, but it applies to masks too, with opinions fiercely-held rather than calmly discussed. If our public leaders fostered an environment of reasonable behaviour and reasoned debate this wouldn’t be such a problem. Currently it’s the shameful hallmark of our society.