Along with most other American doctors, I was unconvinced of the value of wearing face masks except when examining patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 disease. But I now encourage their use. In fact, I am known around my hospital as the doctor who will scold you if you are not wearing a mask at all times. What made me change my mind? Although there are good arguments on both sides, the following are my top three reasons for masking:
1. This virus spreads before you realize you are infected. There is now very clear scientific evidence that the virus spreads when people don’t yet have symptoms. In fact, a recent study showed that the virus load in the throat is the highest at the beginning of symptoms and declines over time, even in the very sick patient. Because this virus spreads before symptoms and with very minimal symptoms, everyone should be wearing masks in public.
2. This virus is aerosolized.The reason for the 6-foot social distancing rule is that droplets from your cough or spit rapidly go the ground and can’t typically get past 6 feet. Certainly, this distancing helps and is needed. But recent studies have shown that coughing, sneezing, and probably talking aerosolizes the virus, which means it latches on to much smaller moisture particles that can float around invisible for hours. You can reduce aerosolizing of your spit by wearing a mask, even a home-made one.
3. Asian countries are doing better than Western countries, and they wear masks. The numbers speak for themselves here. Korea, China, Taiwan. They are all doing better at controlling the pandemic, where there is a strong cultural acceptance of masking. In these countries, most people have been wearing a mask in public for months.
A story from Mount Vernon illustrates these ideas very well. The Skagit Valley Chorale decided to have choir practice in the beginning of March. They did not hug. They did not shake hands. They distanced themselves from each other. All they did was sing. Within three weeks, 45 choir members had tested positive for COVID-19 and two had died. What happened? One or more of the choir members were carrying the disease unknowingly. Their singing forced their spit into an aerosol that filled the room, which infected others. Masks can block this process.
So, if you are going to work, going to the store, going walking: please wear a mask. Do it for yourself. Do it for others. I know it is uncomfortable. I know it stinks after a while. Right now it is pretty rank in this one, as I have a moment to write between patients at the hospital. My ears hurt from the straps. My glasses are misting up. Don’t be a wimp — it could save your life and the life of someone you love. And I will give you a thumbs up instead of a scolding if I see you around the hospital hallways. Wear a mask.
Dr. Paul Bunge