Face coverings, health, and freedom

Why I wear a face mask

face mask

Photo courtesy of John Erik Stacy
For John Erik Stacey, wearing a face mask is synonymous with freedom.

The Norwegian American

If your surgeon did not wear a mask while operating, would you be OK with that? If not, why not? In the 1880s, doctors began to think that germs could be carried on their moist breath. In fact, they showed that bacteria could be cultured from respiratory droplets. So, to protect their patients, doctors started wearing gauze across their face. Do you agree that a no-mask surgeon these days would be an easy target for a malpractice suit? With what we know now about how infections spread from one person to another, it just wouldn’t make sense not to try to stop the tiny little germ-bombs expelled with every breath.

But somehow, the use of face coverings has become a contentious issue for some. At the onset of the coronavirus, authorities were less clear than they are now, and many people are still split on whether to wear one or not.

There is not a lot of mystery around what will reduce the spread of the virus that has caused the COVID-19 pandemic. The medical community has long used face coverings, because they understand how respiratory droplets can spread disease. Now, with several months and millions of cases of experience, the medical community agrees that COVID-19 spreads primarily from one person’s breath to another. Sure, “extreme” forms of breathing like sneezes, coughs, shouting, and singing spread it more effectively, but you can get it from less vigorous exchanges of air, too. 

That is to say, the science around face coverings in relation to the spread of the disease is pretty darn solid. Most of the studies on masks have been done in a clinical setting to test the effectiveness of preventing infection from health-care worker to patient, and vice versa. In addition to studies in hospitals that measure infection rates, the science of how well face coverings work has also been investigated to see how air and moisture move through and around the fabric. Not surprisingly, masks vary a lot in this regard. 

No mask is 100% effective in any context. But they all greatly reduce the spread from the mask-wearer to others. That means that wearing a mask is a means of protecting the people in your community—your loved ones. The crazy thing about the coronavirus is that a lot of people are spreading it without knowing it. You may be brewing a big batch in your airways and spreading it to the world without even feeling sick. And even people who get sick are known to have had it for several days before showing symptoms. There is often a long delay when folks feel fine or not too bad before they start wondering why it is so hard to breathe.

There is also fairly clear evidence at the level of population studies now. Many countries that have curbed coronavirus were leaders in using masks, including South Korea, Austria, and the Czech Republic. But these countries also had stay-at-home orders and ramped up testing and contact tracing, so it is harder to make a rock-solid argument that masks were an important factor, since other measures were also in place. Norway didn’t promote mask use and did manage to squash its curve down to just about nothing through an early stay-at-home order, aggressive testing, and contact tracing. But most of the countries that used masks are also those now able to reopen and resume business as usual.

Some claim that a mask-wearer is more likely to get sick. I have not found any scientific work that suggested face-touching or retained moisture caused by wearing masks might increase your chance of becoming infected with COVID-19. There are also folks who say that face coverings are a serious threat to liberty. But for me, liberty has a lot to do with being able to go out in public, visit shops, and partake in gatherings. 

I say that wearing face coverings has allowed many businesses to open their doors to customers. I would also like to be able to visit my mom in her assisted living facility (where five residents have died of COVID-19), and we may soon be able to meet outdoors with masks. That doesn’t mean I like having a mask on, but it does give me freedom to do things that would otherwise be irresponsible. Masks are no fun to wear—I agree. But consider that if you don’t like the mask, you are really going to hate the ventilator. 

This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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John Erik Stacy

John Erik Stacy grew up in Wayzata, Minn., and has now returned there after over 30 years divided between Oslo and Seattle. He studied Biology at the University of Oslo and worked there several years leading the DNA laboratory for Systematics and Ecology. He also worked as a senior scientist and team leader for a biotech startup at the Oslo Research Park, where he developed automated systems in antibody discovery. He continues to hold investments and consult for companies at the Research Park and travels frequently to Oslo.