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It’s been a steep learning curve. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is a monster. It’s not like influenza. It’s not like the other common-cold coronaviruses. Figuring out how it infects and how it kills has been an enormous challenge. We’ve learned a lot, but there’s a long way yet to go.
At the beginning of the pandemic, health officials assumed the virus spread by droplets and close contact. An infected person coughs or sneezes. Someone nearby inhales droplets or touches a surface contaminated by the droplets then rubs their eyes or nose. Initial recommendations were to wash hands frequently and cover your sneeze with your elbow.
Those precautions still apply, but the virus is a whole lot more insidious than first suspected. It hangs out on aerosols, the tiny particles in every breath we take, every breath we exhale (Prather, 2020). Aerosols remain suspended in the air for hours at a time. Simply breathing produces aerosols; talking and singing produce more. Walk into a closed room where an infected person was talking, and you inhale the virus. The more aerosols, the more virus particles and the sicker you’re likely to get. Pack more carriers into a closed space, breathing and talking or cheering, and more people are likely to get infected.
Simply avoiding people who are coughing and sneezing is not enough. Almost half of infections are contracted from other individuals who are asymptomatic. That is, you don’t know whether or not any individual is carrying the virus. They may be infected but appear perfectly well, yet the air they exhale is loaded with coronavirus.
What to do? The evidence is absolutely clear from lab studies and from countries that have controlled the virus (Stutt, 2020; Beaubien, 2020). Wear masks indoors in public places, and wear a mask whenever you’re with a group. Keep a distance, six feet. Allow groups, wearing masks and distanced, only in open air or large spaces with high volume ventilation. See the CDC guidelines for the full list of preventive measures (CDC, 2020).
Masks protect others from the aerosols you produce and protect you from theirs. Even if the masks are only partially effective, universal mask wearing would go a long way to stopping the pandemic (Saey, 2020). The proof is in the data: mask wearing ended the contagion in other countries where masks are routinely accepted.
If everyone would do their part we could control the pandemic, reduce it to a controllable smolder, gain time until a vaccine becomes available. If everyone would do their part, we could safely re-open the economy. This is not a competition, masks vs. not. It’s all of us on the same team against a deadly pathogen. Masks are essential protective equipment in this game for life.
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020. Facts about coronavirus. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
• Jason Beaubien. 2020. Some countries have brought new cases down to nearly zero. How did they do it? NPR. 27 May 2020
• Oran, Daniel P, and Eric J. Topol. 2020. Prevalence of Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 Infection. Annals of Internal Medicine. 3-June-2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
• Prather, Kimberly, Chia C. Wang, R.T. Schooley. 2020. Reducing transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Science: 26 June, 2020
• Saey, Tina H. 2020. Why scientists say wearing masks shouldn’t be controversial. Science News. 26 June 2020.
•Stutt, Richard O. J. H. , Renata Retkute, Michael Bradley, Christopher A. Gilligan and John Colvin. 2020. A modelling framework to assess the likely effectiveness of facemasks in combination with ‘lock-down’ in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. Proc. Royal Soc. A. 10 June 2020.
By BOB DORSETT, MD | Special to the Herald Times