Mask Or No Mask for Covid-19? Plus More Mask Information

I have written several articles on the coronavirus and on masks and healthcare issues. A series of links have been provided at the bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address a different aspect of the virus or on healthcare issues in general.

Table of Contents

Mask Or No Mask for Covid-19?

Does everyone need to wear a mask outside? Experts weigh in.

Why most of us should be wearing N95 masks

-How to choose and care for your kid’s masks

-The Physics of the N95 Face Mask

Do masks really harm kids? Here’s what the science says.

-The lessons learned from 1918 flu fatigue, according to historians

-If no one else is wearing a mask, should you?

-The COVID Authoritarians Panic Over The End Of The Mask Mandates

Mask Or No Mask for Covid-19?

This sounds simple but it is not. There are several forms of transmission. You have blood and fluid- borne transmission, you have contact transmission from surfaces or physical contact with sick people or their bodily fluids and discharges. Some bacteria have spores and thick cell walls and can survive on surfaces for days. Viruses by there structure can only survive for a short time away from their host. Then you have droplet transmission simple cold, and airborne transmission flu or other viruses. Protection for contact isolation (i.e, blood, fluids and surfaces) you wear protective gear, such as an isolation gown, gloves, booties, hair cover and surgical mask with a clear shield, or goggles. Fluid transmission can also occur with sex, use of condom usually takes care of this problem. For viral transmission via airborne the only true protection is either a N95 mask with protective clothing or a total self contained unit that cleanses the air or has its own air source. SARS and other flu-like viruses fall under this last category. To think Covid-19 acts any differently is simply erroneous. You have a final form of transmission, that is via a vector. For example the mosquito with malaria, the rat and infected fleas with the Bubonic plague to name a few.

Safe distances; droplet transmission is typically 3 feet, the particles are heavier and can’t travel as far. However, if you have a person coughing or sneezing, the distance is much greater, that is why you cover your mouth. Airborne distances are different, the particles are smaller and much lighter, the safe distances are usually 6 feet, but these are only guidelines. Normal breathing being taken in account. Sneezing and coughing increases the distances remarkably up to 12 or more feet.

The problem arises when say, for example, you have your hands full and you have to sneeze what do you do? Do you drop the customers food tray so you can cover your mouth, obviously not. So this is where masks come into place. As I stated earlier, the flu and Covid-19 are viruses, they go through regular masks like they aren’t even there. But what they do is reduce the force of the sneeze, cough or heavy breathing and thereby the distance the particles travel. When you are out in nature and are by yourself, masks are unnecessary. However, when you are outdoors and the distances between people is minimal, you should wear a mask. These are truly gray areas. What about beaches on a hot day, masks are probably not necessary, especially when going in the water. By the way, Covid-19 initially inhabits the nares, so a good dose off saltwater up the nose and through the mouth is probably a good way to help clear out early exposures to Covid-19. When inside of enclosed areas, you should wear masks.

Wearing masks for long periods of time can be unhealthy for the wearer. They should be washed or replaced frequently. If you are symptomatic, you should try not to wear the mask for long periods of time, because you are re-breathing all the contaminates in your airways, so social distancing is your safest bet. Seek medical help if your symptoms get worse. Covid-19 is nothing to mess around with.

I know the WHO has said that 3 feet is okay, however, they have been wrong more than right. If you follow my train of thought, you will agree that 6 feet is a safer distance. You may ask what are my credentials. I have been a student of human anatomy and physiology for over 30 years, I have been an RN for close to 20 years, of which more than 10 years has been in the ICU. I have been on the front line with Covid-19 since the beginning, and have been involved in the treatment of a multitude of positive covid-19 patients.

I just came across this photographic representation of how a general type mask works. I discussed this earlier in this article. But it always help to have visual aid.

Does everyone need to wear a mask outside? Experts weigh in.

(Update 1/22/2022)

(Update 4/10/2021)

he days are getting longer, temperatures are climbing, and daffodils are in full bloom. After a long, dark winter shuttered indoors with the threat of COVID-19 all around us, springtime promises a chance to finally break free from the confines of our homes. But do we have to take those deep breaths of fresh air from behind a mask?

A year after cities closed playgrounds and public parks, fearing the spread of the virus in shared outdoor spaces, plenty of evidence has accumulated showing that outdoor transmission is rare. That means recommendations around wearing a mask outside don’t need to be as strict either.

“One of the strongest findings from the literature is that transmission is reduced outdoors relative to indoors,” says Jonathan Proctor, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Data Science Initiative and the Center for the Environment. The reason is fairly intuitive: The virus has plenty of places to go besides up your nose.

“There’s a lot of air in which the droplets and the viral particles can disperse,” says Lisa Lee, a public health expert at Virginia Tech and former official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A systematic review published in February found that fewer than 10 percent of reported SARS-CoV-2 infections occurred outdoors. Indoor transmission, by comparison, was more than 18 times more likely. Infections that did occur outside usually involved other risks, such as people mixing indoor and outdoor activities.

Distance, duration, and intensity matter most

Still, the risk isn’t zero, says Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona in Phoenix.

“Outside is protective, but it’s not a total risk eliminator,” Popescu says. “When we’re seeing transmission outdoors, it’s people who are close to each other, talking face to face.”

The three key factors to consider are distance, duration, and intensity, she says. The closer people are, the more droplets an activity is generating, and the longer people are close to one another, the more the risk increases and the more important a mask becomes. As with so much else in the pandemic, infection risk—and the need to wear a mask—hinges on the context.

“It depends a lot on a number of things, including how crowded an outdoor activity is, how much movement there is, if everybody’s facing the same direction versus everybody facing each other, how vigorously people are exhaling,” Lee says. “If everyone is breathing really heavily, their droplets will travel further, so you’ll want a wider berth than six feet.”

Popescu gave a few examples of outdoor situations in which she always wears a mask versus those where she simply keeps one on hand if needed.

“If I’m in a farmers market, I’ll wear a mask because I’m around other people. Even if I can kind of distance periodically, I’ll wear a mask the whole time,” Popescu says. “If I’m walking with my husband on the beach or walking down the street with my dog, I will have my mask with me and I’ll put it on as I see people approaching.”

Basically, if Popescu will be in close proximity to people outside her household, she puts it on. If she can remain at least six feet from others—at a minimum, she emphasizes—the mask isn’t necessary.

Weather seems to have little impact 

As the Northern Hemisphere heads into summer, the risks of outdoor transmission may drop even lower, suggests some preliminary research on the weather’s impact on SARS-CoV-2 transmission. The strongest factor, albeit still with weak evidence overall, appears to be ultraviolet light.

“Our findings suggest that UV might be deactivating the virus and therefore making it more difficult for the virus to spread,” says Proctor, who coauthored a study that showed the association of higher levels of UV light with lower levels of COVID-19 transmission. The reasons for that association are difficult to pin down, he says.

“In terms of empirical studies on climatological factors, sunlight, temperature, humidity, windspeed, etc., it appears that days when you have higher sunlight, you see reduced transmission of COVID over the following two weeks,” says Proctor. “That two-week lag is consistent with the time it takes someone to transmit the virus and then the symptoms to show and to get tested.”

Several studies have also found that cases fall as temperature rises.

“In general, respiratory viruses like cold, dry temperatures, especially SARS-CoV-2,” says Luca Cegolon, a medical epidemiologist at the public health department in Treviso, Italy, and senior author of a commentary on the rationale for wearing masks outdoors. “The mask is not only providing a physical barrier, but it also helps maintain the relative humidity and temperature of the mouth and especially the nose,” Cegolon says. “That interferes with the settlement [the virus’s ability to get a foothold] and replication of the virus and keeps the immune system of the upper airways stronger.”

But those findings are more relevant in the winter and, again, when people gather close together for a long time. Overall, evidence about the virus’s seasonality remains muddled, says Gaige Kerr, an environmental and occupational health scientist at George Washington University, who led a recent research review in this area.

“At this point, we don’t really have a good grasp on the exact impact that various meteorological variables have on the disease,” Kerr says. Influenza and other coronaviruses have seasonality, Kerr says, and lab experiments have shown the SARS-CoV-2 virus lasts longer in cold, dry conditions with low UV radiation. “But those results have not really been reflected in real world data,” he says. “Despite dozens or hundreds of studies, the results are just all over the place, and there’s not a consensus at all. Using meteorology as a basis for changing or relaxing government interventions is really not supported by the science.”

Spending time outdoors, even mask less, offers health benefits

Instead, the weather’s biggest impact is likely on human behavior. While Proctor’s findings, for example, suggest UV light could be deactivating the virus, other reasons could explain the association they found.

“It could be that when it’s sunny, people go outside,” Proctor says.

People gather inside when the temperature climbs too high or drops too low, Lee says, and that leads to more transmission. In fact, that’s the very reason it’s important for policymakers not to require masks outdoors, says Muge Cevik, an infectious disease physician and clinical lecturer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

“For over a year, people have been under some sort of restriction, our lives have changed significantly, and everyone is just so tired,” Cevik says. “If we ask people to regularly use masks outdoors in every circumstance, it will exacerbate that mental fatigue. Then there’s no place where they can enjoy themselves without any restrictions.”

Outdoor mask mandates also push people indoors, where they won’t be seen gathering but where the risk is much higher, Cevik says. And meeting outside has other public health benefits.

“We can’t really think about public health as only infection control,” Cevik says. “Allowing outdoors to be a place where people recharge their energy through fresh air, joy, physical activity, and social connection is also important from a public health perspective.”

Mask up if the situation calls for it

So, whether people choose to don a mask outside should, again, depend on the activity. Popescu doesn’t see much reason for solo cyclists to wear a mask, though cyclists traveling in tighter groups or around many pedestrians should wear one. Similarly, joggers really only need to put on a mask or pull up a neck gaiter when passing someone.

“If you are running up behind someone jogging, you’ll be running into what they exhale in their slipstream,” Lee says, so wear a mask until you’re past them.

If swimming, masks are obviously impractical, but they’re also unnecessary if people from different households are staying at least six feet apart and no one is shouting directly at someone else’s face, Lee says.

Hikers can leave masks off unless they’ll be passing within six feet of one another. Even then, masks aren’t that necessary for brief encounters or passing unless hikers are breathing heavily. That said, donning your mask has symbolic value as well.

“I do think it’s an important expression of solidarity,” Lee says. “It is an important message that it doesn’t take much to pull your mask on for a few seconds while you’re passing someone.”

Popescu agrees. “It’s a mixture of respect and acknowledging that, even if it’s brief and the risk is very low, it’s the right thing to do,” she says.

Opinion: Don’t Let The Masks Divide Us

different types of protective face mask against blue background - stock photo different types of protective face mask against blue background Kilito Chan via Getty Images
Kilito Chan via Getty Images

As renewed lockdowns and mask mandates become increasingly common, elected officials have succeeded in causing further division and polarization in the United States. 

Americans can now effectively look at one another and see a tangible difference which often leads them to draw the conclusion that perhaps that person has a different ideology than they do (if they are not wearing a mask), but also to make the assessment that they might be physically harmed by that person’s decision not to wear a mask. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised its mask guidance last week, sending many Americans into a flurry of confusion, anger, and frustration. After a year of lockdowns and anxiety, with little clarity about the future, Americans have had enough. This is especially true when the so-called “science” on which the experts are basing their policy reversals seems to not only be inconsistent but directly contradictory to past guidelines. 

In May, President Joe Biden told Americans that if they were fully vaccinated, they no longer needed to wear a mask. He and his administration changed that position this week, saying the flip has to do with a new strand of the virus — the Delta variant. Biden said there could be another virus in the future, sending the message to Americans that this kind of back-and-forth policy-making could go on forever. 

Not only does this change in policy do serious harm to the nation’s trust in government institutions, but it undermines the administration’s ultimate goal of getting people vaccinated. Many Americans will not only be less inclined to get the vaccine if they are told that it doesn’t change their lives for the better, but those who got the vaccine will be less likely to follow such instructions and make similar decisions in the future.

The mask has now become a political statement. When CDC guidance allowed vaccinated individuals to stop wearing face coverings, the assumption could be made that people who were still wearing masks had decided against getting the vaccine — even though many Americans most likely stopped wearing masks once this guidance was decided, regardless of their vaccination status. At this point, someone who has decided not to get vaccinated has done so at their own freedom and own risk. 

If I hand you an umbrella in a rainstorm, and you refuse to take it, it is not my responsibility if you get drenched. 

The same goes for vaccines — but now those in charge of our scientific and political establishments have created a way for Americans to potentially visibly identify those who disagree or agree with them. The mask is now political.

This is bad for the country.

In his essay, “Live Not By Lies,” Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn pressed his peers to avoid living their life by the lies of others. He wrote about this practice as the best way forward, the best way to push back against oppression. 

He wrote

Our way must be: Never knowingly support lies! Having understood where the lies begin (and many see this line differently)—step back from that gangrenous edge! Let us not glue back the flaking scales of the Ideology, not gather back its crumbling bones, nor patch together its decomposing garb, and we will be amazed how swiftly and helplessly the lies will fall away, and that which is destined to be naked will be exposed as such to the world.

Solzhenitsyn offered a piece of understanding to people who were afraid to speak out against the lies that surrounded them: 

We are not called upon to step out onto the square and shout out the truth, to say out loud what we think—this is scary, we are not ready. But let us at least refuse to say what we do not think!

Do not repeat things that you do not believe to be true. Find out the facts for yourself, and push the truth out in the smallest of ways. Wherever you fall in the mask and vaccine debate, don’t let it divide us.

We must not allow the ruling political elites to divide us further in the name of “science.” 

We must not adhere to the notion that a person who does not agree with us, who does not make the same choices that we do, is dangerous and will harm us.

This does not end in a good way.

Why most of us should be wearing N95 masks

The short answer: Because they’re the most protective, and they’re finally widely available.

(Update 1/21/2022)

N95 respirators have long been the best disposable face coverings for protection against airborne viruses, but until recently, they were scarce.

When worn properly, N95s can filter out at least 95 percent of particles in the air, including the virus that causes covid-19. Only pricey air-purifying respirators or hazmat suits offer better protection.

Early in the pandemic, the U.S. stock of N95s was too depleted even to meet the sudden, dire needs of front-line health-care workers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told us to save the most protective masks for essential workers and sew our own.

After two years of ramped-up production, high-quality N95s are widely available to consumers, and the Strategic National Stockpile contains more than 750 million.

Some experts recommended that more people wear them after the delta variant emerged last summer, and on Jan. 14, the CDC updated its recommendations to tout their effectiveness and remove caveats about short supply. The White House plans to give away 400 million N95s in the next few weeks to help stifle the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.

How N95 masks work

It is made of polypropylene fibers that are 1/50th the size of a human hair, blown together in a random web to create an obstacle course for particles.

N95s come in several shapes and carry a mark from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to show that they are authentic. Some look like domes, others a bit like duck bills. This flat-fold, three-panel type is popular in hospitals.

It is made of polypropylene fibers that are 1/50th the size of a human hair, blown together in a random web to create an obstacle course for particles.

Air flows in and out of the microscopic spaces between the fibers, allowing the wearer to breathe.

The fibers carry an electrostatic charge that attracts passing particles like a magnet. Large particles bump into the fibers and easily become trapped. The more particles are captured, the denser and more effective the fibers become.

The tiniest particles can move between fibers, but they are constantly jostled by air molecules. All that pinging around makes them likely to eventually hit a fiber and become trapped as well.

The most difficult particles to capture are small enough to slip between fibers but stout enough that they don’t bounce around a lot. Coronaviruses typically fit into this midsize category. However, the electrostatic charge is effective at grabbing particles of all sizes out of the air.

Who should not wear an N95?

Nearly everyone over age 2 needs to wear a mask in at least some situations, but the CDC stopped short of recommending that everyone switch to N95s, saying basically that the best mask for you is one that fits well and that you’ll wear consistently.

For instance, if you find N95s uncomfortable, or you prefer ear loops to head straps, maybe you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of protection.

According to the CDC, well-fitting N95s are the most protective, followed by KN95s and surgical masks. Chinese-made KN95s are supposed to be of a standard comparable to N95s, and many are of high quality, but they do not go through the NIOSH approval process. “Loosely woven cloth coverings” are the least protective.

Beware of the many counterfeit N95s and KN95s on the market. The CDC website has a list of approved models and examples of counterfeits. There are no NIOSH-approved N95s for children, although some manufacturers claim their products meet N95 standards. Children under 2 should not wear masks at all, and people with certain disabilities may not tolerate them.

For everyone else who wants one, there should be enough N95s to go around.

How to choose and care for your kid’s masks

The best mask is a mask your child will tolerate

(Update 1/21/2022)

This year’s back-to-school supply list has an important line item: masks. With a rise in the delta variant, school mask mandates and recommendations from major medical groups that all children 2 and older should be masked in indoor group settings have sent parents into a mask-buying scramble.

With a dizzying variety of choices around not only brands, but types of face masks and how to care for them, parents have largely been left to fend for themselves as they try to protect their children and others. We asked infectious-disease specialists, pediatricians and other experts how parents should parse the mask questions.

What kind of mask offers the best protection for kids?

There is a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is: A mask your child will tolerate. “The most effective mask is a mask a child will wear and fits them properly. That’s much more important than the filtration characteristics between the three different kinds of masks,” says Eric Toner, an internist and senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

The three types of masks that Toner referred to are cloth masks, surgical masks and N95s (plus their cousins, KN95s and KF94s).

Finding a mask your child will keep on during the school day was a point of common emphasis among all experts we spoke to. Yvonne Maldonado, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at Stanford University and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Infectious Diseases, says the “bottom line” is that “the best mask is the mask the child will actually wear.”

The longer answer is that, compliance across mask types being equal, there are differences but not tremendous ones. Toner says all three types of masks are effective at what is known as “source control,” or stopping the spread of the virus outward if your child is the one infected. In terms of blocking incoming particles, all masks greatly reduce inhalation of virus-laden particles, with N95s blocking the most.

Even with the differences in filtration, though, all the experts we spoke to agreed that — even in the face of the delta variant — either a double-layered cloth mask or a surgical mask offer the best balance between wearability and protection. (To check if a cloth mask is double-layered, you should be able pull the separate layers of fabric toward opposite ends as if it were a double-layered blanket.)

Should kids wear N95 masks?

It is probably not necessary for kids to wear N95 masks, and it could actually backfire. “A well-fitted N95 is uncomfortable to wear, and I am very doubtful that most kids would tolerate them for very long,” Toner says, adding that “they are at great risk for not being used properly.”

Emily Levy, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic, concurred. Levy noted that even health care professionals treating active covid-19 patients only wear N95 masks during procedures such as intubation; otherwise, they are in surgical masks. “An N95 is a medical grade mask. It has never been tested in children for safety or efficacy,” Levy says. “We don’t have much safety or efficacy data for children with different facial structures and respiratory patterns [than adults].” This includes the KN95s and KF94s. Although there are many masks that appear to fit children and are called KN95 or KF94, they often have not been regulated by a governing body in the United States.

Are cloth masks with filters the best option for kids?

It is something of a grab-bag. “Filters are a bit controversial because it’s a bit unclear what kind of filter it is,” says Levy. “So in general we recommend staying away from filters.”

Aaron Prussin and Linsey Marr of Virginia Tech’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, who have created a public spreadsheet of child mask recommendations, write that they only recommend filters that “spans the mask. Smaller filter inserts are less effective because it is easier for air to flow around them rather than through them.”

How do I get my child to wear a face mask all day?

Helping your child build good mask-wearing habits is generally more important than the materials the mask is made of. Several experts suggest including the child — particularly if they are younger — in the mask selection process. “If children have a role in picking out a mask or decorating it, that can be really helpful in keeping the mask on their faces,” says Maldonado.

Bergen Nelson, a pediatrician with the Virginia Commonwealth University Health Systems, talked about practicing and making a game out of it. “Say, ‘This your superhero costume — you’re a superhero, wear your mask! Superheroes wear masks!’ ” she says. “Depending on the age and developmental level of the child, you can get them motivated in different ways. Some kids are very motivated to know that they’re helping prevent the spread, some kids like to be the superhero, some kids might need an incentive: ‘If you can go the whole time with your mask on, you can get a reward at the end of the day.’”

Despite conventional wisdom, Nelson adds that in her experience, children have overall “done really well” with mask-wearing. “They’ve been amazingly flexible and resilient and willing to do their part.”

How bad is it if my child has a tendency to wet their mask by licking or chewing on it?

This turns out to somewhat depend on the mask type. It is not ideal for any mask to get wet, and you should work with your child to limit wetting, but Toner explains that surgical masks (and N95s) lose an enormous amount of their protective ability when wet. Surgical mask material, he said, “depends on electrostatic charge to catch the particles, and if it’s wet, it loses the charge, and the efficiency goes way down.” If your child is prone to having a wet mask, going the cloth route is probably advisable.

How often should I change or wash my child’s mask?

Fairly frequently. Levy says her rule of thumb is, “If you can see that the mask is soiled — markings externally or internally — it’s probably time to wash it, and if it’s disposable, it’s probably time to get rid of it.”

Changing masks is especially important for younger children who tend to get close to each others’ faces, as respiratory droplets of covid or other germs can sit on the mask. While surface transmission of covid is rare, Nelson noted that a child who touches their germy mask and then touches an orifice in their face could increase their risk of getting sick.

If a disposable mask is not soiled, it may be ok to reuse a couple times. The concern with reusing disposable masks is the loss of shape and a tight fit. “If your goal is source control — to keep from spreading the virus to other people — even if you wore them 100 times, you’d still have good source control,” Toner says. “They just start losing their efficacy for protecting you.”

The Centers for Disease Control has a helpful website with information about cleaning and otherwise caring for masks.

Where should I get my child masks?

The good news is that masks that meet the bar the experts laid out — minimum of double-layered cloth — are widely available, and the message from experts is to not stress about finding the perfect mask.

If you are trying to be more discerning, the spreadsheet put together by Prussin and Marr, as well as one put together by mechanical engineer Aaron Collins, offer specific recommendations.

Elliot Haspel is the program officer for education policy & research at the Robins Foundation in Richmond, and the author of Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.


I have discussed Masks on a few of my articles. I don’t believe that masks are necessary in the outdoors, unless you are in close proximity for prolonged periods of time. I don’t agree the individuals that are mentioned in my update. Mask wearing has nothing to do with health and everything to do with power. Put a mask on when you are walking on a trail or a park is insane. The chance of infecting someone in an incidental contact during a walking pass-by is infinitesimal. But I try to be unbiased in my articles and I do my best to educate the reader, by posting the most up to date information available.

The Physics of the N95 Face Mask

You’ve seen them a million times. You might be wearing one right now. But do you know how they work to block a potentially virus-carrying respiratory blob?

(Update 2/1/2022)

IT’S 2022, AND by now we’ve all been wearing masks for nearly two years. And unless you are a surgeon or a construction worker who was already wearing them daily, in those two years you’ve probably learned a lot about them—which ones you like best, where to get them, and whether you have any extras stashed in a coat pocket or somewhere in your car.

But do you know what makes the prized N95 mask so special? Let’s find out.Electric Charges

The fibers in regular cloth or paper face masks filter out particles by physically blocking them—but the fibers in an N95 mask also use a great physics trick. These fibers are electrically charged.

Electric charge is one of the fundamental properties of all particles. Just about everything around you is made of three particles: the proton, the electron and the neutron. (For now, let’s ignore muons and neutrinos—both fundamental particles that actually exist—as well as other particles that are theoretically possible.)

Just as every particle has a mass, it also has a charge. The proton has a positive electric charge with a value of 1.6 x 10-19 coulombs, the unit for measuring electric charge. The electron has the exact opposite charge. That leaves the neutron with zero charge (thus the “neut” part of “neutron”).

The electric charge is a key part of the electrostatic interaction, the force between electric charges. The magnitude of this force depends on the magnitudes of the two charges and the distance between them. We can calculate this force with Coulomb’s law. It looks like this:

F equals k time q one times q two over r squared

In this expression, k is a constant with a value of 9 x 109 N×m2/C2. The charges are q1 and q2 and the distance between them is r. This will give a force in newtons. If the two charges are both the same sign (either both positive or both negative) then this will be a repulsive force. If the two charges are different signs, then the force is attractive.

If everything is made of electrons and protons, shouldn’t there be electric forces between everything? Well, sort of. Electrons and protons are super tiny. That means that even a small drop of water will have something like 1022 protons in it. That drop will probably have the same number of electrons. (And no one cares about the neutrons—at least for now.) That makes the overall charge of this drop of water equal to zero coulombs. Even if you have extra electrons in your water, the total charge is going to be small, since the electron charge is puny. Essentially, most of the stuff you can see is electrically neutral with no electric forces.How Do You Charge Something?

Remember that one time you took a sock out of the clothes dryer and it stuck to your shirt? If that’s a static electricity interaction, how did the sock get charged?

To make a sock negatively charged, there’s only one way to do it—make sure the sock has more electrons than protons. You are going to need a lot of electrons, maybe something on the order of 1013 extra electrons. (To give you an idea of how large this number is, it would be the total number of bills you’d need to give everyone on earth $1,000 in singles.) All those extra electrons would give the sock an overall negative charge of around 1 microcoulomb (1 x 10-6 C).

If you want to make that same sock positively charged, instead of adding electrons you would remove them. This would leave the sock with more protons than electrons for an overall positive charge. But you can’t just remove protons from most objects willy-nilly. Well, you can, but it might be super bad. Think back to the periodic table of elements. Let’s say you start with an object that’s made of carbon, which has six protons in the nucleus. If you removed one of these protons, it would no longer be carbon. It would be boron, which has five protons—and you would have just created a nuclear reaction.

On the other hand, if you take away an electron from carbon, it’s just a carbon ion. It doesn’t transform into a different element.

OK, but how do you add or remove electrons? You really only have two options. The most common method is to transfer electrons from one surface to another by rubbing them. I know that seems silly, but it’s true. If you get a plastic pen and rub it on your wool sweater, both the pen and sweater will become charged. But which one will get the electrons? The answer depends on the two types of materials—and you can figure it out with the help of a thing called a triboelectric series. Using that, we would find that the wool is positively charged and the pen is negative.

If you need another example, this is what happens if you rub a cotton shirt on a plastic playground slide:

a child with spiked air

In this case, the child in the photo (it’s an older picture of one of my boys) went down the slide with the shirt rubbing against the plastic. Those excess electrons spread over his body and got into his hair. Since all the hair was negatively charged, each strand repelled the others. The only way they could get as far as possible from the other strands was to stand up.

This is a cool picture, but you need two things for this to happen. First, you need very thin and light hair. (Curly hair will just stay curly and not stand up.) Second, the air needs to be dry. It turns out that an electrically charged child will attract water—I will show you why down below—and when the water hits them, it removes the charge.

There is another way to get excess electrons onto an object—shoot them at it. Yes, there is such a thing as an “electron gun.” But maybe you have already seen something that’s similar: Old-style cathode ray televisions shot a stream of electrons to hit the screen to make those pretty pictures. So it is possible to charge something without touching it.Interaction Between Charged and Uncharged Objects

If you’re wearing an N95 mask, the objects you want to stop are the tiny wet blobs that come out of a person’s nose and mouth and could possibly carry a virus. These are essentially uncharged.

You might think that an electrically-charged N95 face mask would only be good for stopping electrically charged objects, but you can have an interaction between uncharged and charged objects.

Let’s start with a simple demonstration you can do at home. Start with a plastic pen (or some other small plastic thing) and one of those plastic grocery bags. Now rub the pen with the bag. It should become electrically charged. If you can’t get it to work, you might need to change up materials—you could try rubbing the plastic pen against some wool or your hair. Now tear up some paper into tiny pieces and put them on the table. When you bring the charged pen near the paper, you get some magic-looking physics.

The answer is polarization. Let’s consider the simplest model of a molecule of paper. This pretend paper molecule is a sphere with just two charged particles, a proton and an electron. (If you are thinking back to the periodic table, yes, this would make it hydrogen paper. No, it totally doesn’t exist.)

Here’s my model of this:

plus sign in red circle. All are in blue circle

In atoms, the negative electron acts like it is spread over the blue region. We call it an “electron cloud.” I know that seems weird, but weird stuff happens with tiny objects like molecules. The important thing is that the center of the negative blue cloud is at the same location as the positive charge. In this state, it’s unpolarized.

Now let’s say the positively charged pen is brought near the paper molecule. The electron cloud will get pulled toward the pen (because they are oppositely charged), and the positive proton will get pushed away.

Here’s what the paper molecule will look like now:

plus signs in gray circle. minus and plus sign in blue oval

(Note: This is not even close to being the correct scale.)

The paper molecule is now polarized. The positive pen interacts with both the negative electron and the positive proton. However, the effective location of the negative electron cloud is closer to the pen than the proton. The magnitude of the electric force between charges decreases as the separation distance increases. This means the attractive force between the pen and the electron is greater than the repulsive force between the pen and the proton. So there is an overall attractive force pulling the paper toward the pen, even though the paper is neutral.

Yes, that’s just one molecule—but if the same thing happens with every molecule in the piece of paper you can get an attractive force. That’s cool, right?

Did you notice in my demo that some of the paper is attracted and then repelled by the plastic pipe? That can happen. When the paper hits the positive pipe, some of the negative electrons transfer from the paper to the pen. Now the paper is also positive and the pen repels it to make it fly away.

Something similar happens with water—but it’s technically different. Actually, this is another great demonstration to try: Get your charged plastic pen and bring it near a very thin stream of water from a faucet.

Notice that some of the water drops are attracted to the degree that they partially circle the charged pipe. Why does water do this? A water molecule is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen (yeah, H2O). But because of the way these atoms are arranged, there is a permanent charge separation. Here is a rough model:

H2O molecule

It just so happens that the two hydrogen atoms acting like this are more positive, and the oxygen acts like it’s negative. Because of the bent angle of the bonds, this makes a charge separation such that this water molecule is polarized. A water droplet near a charged object will rotate in such a way that the oppositely charged end of the molecule will face the object and then be attracted to it. That’s why you can bend a stream of water with a charged piece of plastic.How the N95 Mask Works

Now imagine something similar to the electrically charged pen and the water—but at a much smaller scale. Instead of a pen, you have a bunch of plastic fibers. Instead of the water you have the drops that fly out of someone’s mouth. This is essentially what happens in an N95 mask. The fiber in the mask attracts those drops, keeping the wearer from inhaling them. At a very small scale (like that of respiratory aerosols and fibers), things tend to stick together, due to what’s called the van der Waals interaction. This is basically an attractive interaction between two uncharged objects because of very slight charge separations.

With an N95 fiber, you don’t have to rub it with some other material to get it charged. The fibers in the mask are created from an “electret” material; this word comes from combining electric and magnet. No, it’s not an electromagnet—it is a permanently electrically charged object, just in the way that a bar magnet on your fridge is.

There are a couple of ways to make electret materials. One is to bombard the stuff with electrons so that they get stuck in the fiber to make it stay charged. The other method is to heat up a material in an electric field. The increase in temperature allows the molecules in the material to rotate into a polarized state, due to their interaction with the electric field. Once the material cools off, the molecules stay polarized. This makes a slightly different electret material, in that it creates an electric effect even though it’s still neutrally charged.

So, the electret fibers in an N95 mask not only block small particles by getting in the way, they can also attract them with the electric interaction, so they get stuck to the fibers. This means that those water droplets carrying a virus don’t get inhaled, and the mask wearer won’t be infected. Of course, an N95 also blocks other small particles, like dust, paint, and other toxic stuff that might not be great for a person to inhale into their body.

So there you have it—the N95 mask doesn’t just help us all get past this terrible pandemic, it can also teach us some awesome physics.

Do masks really harm kids? Here’s what the science says.

As more states drop mask mandates, experts explain why keeping them on in schools is still a smart move for families and teachers.

(Update 2/19/2022)

School mask mandates have become something of a political lightning rod in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic—and, in recent weeks, the dominos have started to fall as one state after another has announced plans to lift their mandates.

Some parents and teachers have cited concerns that masks harm kids by impairing their ability to breathe, slowing their social and emotional development, and causing them anxiety. But experts say that the science doesn’t back up those worries.

It’s understandable why there might be confusion, says Thomas Murray, a pediatrician at the Yale University School of Medicine. There’s no question that masking reduces the spread of disease, but the evidence is less cut and dry about how masking affects kids emotionally and developmentally over the age of two. To answer that definitively would require that researchers asking people to shed their masks for a randomized trial, the gold standard in science, which would be unethical. So, most masking research is based on retrospective real-life observations that can be more easily cherry-picked to argue one side or the other of the debate over mask mandates.

“But we do have this human experiment that’s been going on with kids wearing masks at school, and we know that we haven’t seen those fears of health risks realized,” says Theresa Guilbert, a pediatric pulmonologist who is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine.

She and other experts say most evidence suggests that masking doesn’t harm children—and that it benefits them in more ways than one. Not only do masks protect kids from COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases, but studies show that schools with mask policies in place are more likely to stay open, which decades of research show is particularly critical for kids’ mental health and development.

Here’s what the science says about kids and masks.

How masks affect breathing

One of the earliest concerns that parents had about kids wearing masks all day was how it might affect their breathing—whether masks would allow them to get enough oxygen or trap in too much carbon dioxide. Guilbert says this was raised as a concern for kids since they breathe more rapidly than adults.

But there’s no evidence that masking significantly impairs breathing. In fact, one study showing unacceptable levels of carbon dioxide in kids ages six to 17 who wore masks was widely discredited last summer—and ultimately retracted by the journal JAMA Pediatrics—because of concerns over the accuracy of its measurements and validity of its conclusions.

Instead, Guilbert points to a meta-analysis of 10 studies, showing that the fluctuation of carbon dioxide and oxygen levels among adults and children wearing masks was “well within normal range.” While children with severe asthma might need to take mask breaks in the hallway outside of the classroom, these studies show that most kids can tolerate them.

She points out that this makes sense based on what we know about the size of carbon dioxide and oxygen molecules—which are far smaller than the holes in the weave of cloth and surgical masks and should have no trouble flowing in and around the masks. Moreover, she says, two years into the pandemic, hospitals just aren’t seeing an influx of children with dangerously low oxygen or high carbon dioxide levels due to masking.

“There’s a lot of hypotheses thrown around, but we have this real-life experiment going on,” she says.

How masks affect language development

Another concern has been whether masks might impede children’s language development. Samantha Mitsven, a psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Miami, says she and other researchers worried that the inability to see a speaker’s mouth move—and the muffling effects of wearing a mask—could keep children from understanding and learning new words.

Studies have shown that masks muffle sound—and how significantly varies depending on the type of mask. One study showed that children can more easily recognize words spoken through opaque masks rather than transparent masks, likely due to the confusion caused by light bouncing off a transparent mask. Another study suggests that surgical masks offer the best acoustical performance, followed by KN95 and N95 masks, then cloth masks—with transparent masks again coming in last.

But experts say there’s no clear evidence that this significantly impairs a child’s ability to communicate—perhaps because people can compensate by talking more slowly and loudly and by using hand gestures to convey meaning.

Mitsven led a recent study analyzing audio recordings of preschoolers—one classroom that was observed over multiple visits before the pandemic and another classroom that was observed when the children and teachers were required to mask. The study found no difference in how much the children spoke or the diversity of the language they used. This was true even for children with hearing aids and cochlear implants, a population that made up half of each class.

“The vocalizations are on par with children their age,” Mitsven says.

How masks affect social development

Similarly, studies do show that children have a harder time reading the emotions of people who are wearing masks—but that doesn’t necessarily prevent them from learning how to interact with others.

From the earliest months of life, children watch the faces of the people around them. This helps them first distinguish between positive and negative emotions and ultimately learn how to adjust their behavior accordingly.

Covering up the bottom half of one’s face with a mask does affect that ability: A study published in Frontiers in Psychology showed that children between the ages of three and five were less adept at recognizing the emotions on photographs of people wearing masks compared to photographs of unmasked people.

But Walter Gilliam, a child psychiatry and psychology professor at the Yale Child Study Center, says this study and others like it are limited by their reliance on still photographs. “I’m more than just my eyeballs,” he says. Children also pick up on cues like how people walk through spaces, the tone of their voices, and the hand gestures they make. “All of that is stripped away from those studies.” He points to another study showing that children have no more difficulty reading the emotions of a person wearing a face mask than they do a person wearing sunglasses.

These studies are also only a snapshot in time—they can’t tell us how quickly children would be able to adapt to these challenges if given the chance. “Everything I know about child development would tell me that they’d adjust quickly,” Gilliam says. “I wish that we had more faith in the capacity of children.”

Guilbert agrees that there’s no sign that masking keeps children and adolescents from developing socially—and, she argues, it might be key to ensuring they can go to school. Over the course of two years, evidence has grown that masking policies help schools stay open by reducing the number of outbreaks.

How masks affect mental health

Similarly, while some argue that school masking mandates are harmful to a child’s mental health, experts say the evidence suggests the opposite. Guilbert says the most significant signal of the pandemic’s toll on mental health came early in the pandemic. Back then children who were doing remote learning experienced increased levels of anxiety and depression because they weren’t at school with their peers.

Gilliam and Murray, the Yale researchers, were also concerned about how school shutdowns were affecting the mental health of kids and their stressed-out parents alike. With that in mind, they decided early in the pandemic to investigate the most effective strategies for keeping schools and early childcare programs open.

In May 2020, the researchers surveyed 6,654 childcare professionals in all 50 U.S. states to find out which COVID-19 mitigation tactics they were using, including social distancing, symptom screening, and masking. Then, a year later, they followed up to see if those programs had been forced to close. Their resulting analysis shows that childcare facilities with mask requirements for kids older than two were 13 percent more likely to have remained open than those where kids were not masked.

As with many of the other studies on masking in schools, Gilliam and Murray concede that their study is limited: It’s based on real-world observations and could not control for other factors—like, say, whether the adults and children who masked also avoided travel throughout the same period. But it still provides more compelling evidence that masking policies have more potential to help rather than hurt a child’s mental health.

“We can’t wear masks forever, but you can’t have kids missing 10 days of school every so often because of quarantine,” Murray says.

Gilliam says blaming masks for the depression and anxiety in kids stems from a natural desire to protect them. But he suspects it’s not the masking that causes stress in classrooms. “It’s the trauma of COVID that the masks were intended to prevent,” he says. “When you have an ache and a pain, it’s the cut on your arm not the Band-Aid that went over it that’s causing the problem. The purpose of the mask is to reduce all the other traumas—traumas that we know for an absolute fact harm children.”

How will we know when to drop mask mandates?

So how can science help guide schools in making these decisions? Well, for one, experts caution that it’s important for policymakers to keep in mind that there are always outliers in a study. So even though the evidence suggests that masking doesn’t harm most children, mask mandates may need to carve out exemptions for children who are deaf and need to read lips or for children with autism who struggle to interpret facial expressions.

Murray says that risk mitigation is also best done in layers—and that schools have an array of tactics they can use against COVID-19. To prevent the virus from getting into schools in the first place, they can implement robust testing and symptom-checking strategies. But if the disease is there and spreading among students, masking and ventilation become more important mitigation strategies. So, if schools are going to remove masking policies, he says, they need to think about stepping up ventilation or testing.

Community transmission matters, too. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has urged lawmakers not to drop school mask mandates while infections remain high across the country. Although case numbers are falling, they remain higher than they were before the Omicron surge.

While lifting mask mandates might make sense during times when local cases are low, Murray says that schools need to be willing to go back to masking if a harmful new variant emerges or if they start to see a new surge in cases. There’s no magic number to determine when to lift mandates, he says—it can differ based on a variety of factors that can mitigate transmission, such as whether schools have enough space for students to spread out or whether it’s warm enough to open classroom windows. But Murray argues that it’s important to be willing to consider the evidence and be willing to change your mind when more evidence comes available.

“The point is,” he says, “I agree that at some point we have to try it, but boy you’ve got to have a really thoughtful plan because having kids out of early childcare and parents scrambling to find alternative safe care is not good for anybody.”

The lessons learned from 1918 flu fatigue, according to historians

More than a century ago, exhausted Americans just wanted to forget about two years of lockdowns and mask mandates—but experts warn against repeating history.

(Update 3/12/2022)

Two decades after surviving an influenza pandemic that devastated the United States, Katherine Anne Porter recounted her experiences in one of the best-known accounts of the period—the 1939 novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider.

In her story, Porter describes how many young people felt as though their lives were threatened by the dual strike of a deadly virus and World War I. Miranda, the main character, recovers from influenza, but sinks into depression as she attempts to rejoin society. The novella ends on a note of optimism, however, where Miranda dreams of a world with no war and no more plague, and she’d have time for “everything.”

Historians say it’s unclear when the 1918 flu actually did end—and that’s partly because Americans were as tired of the flu as they are now after two years of COVID-19. Although cases continued to spike in 1920 and beyond, much of the historical record of the pandemic is from its first two years. Porter’s novella is one of the few written accounts of its enduring trauma and formal efforts to document the disease ultimately failed because Americans in the early 20th century simply wanted to forget the flu.

Similarly, two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, fatigue has grown—alongside arguments about when to loosen public health measures like mask and vaccine mandates. But historian Nancy Bristow, who wrote about the novella in her book American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, says that while going back to a pre-pandemic normal may be appealing, history shows it could have harmful implications both for this pandemic—and the next one.

“That drive to not have to do what we’ve been doing carries with it a great potential to forget,” she says. “The ways in which Americans continue to think that these kinds of things won’t happen to us, that kind of American exceptionalism, you can only do that if you are a nation that is very, very capable of forgetting moments of its past.”

Fatigue sets in over public health measures

Flu historians like Bristow point out that these two pandemics can’t quite be neatly compared. The world was dramatically different in the early 20th century—war was widespread, there were no influenza vaccines, and the U.S. didn’t have as robust a health care infrastructure to care for those who fell ill then. The virus also targeted younger populations and the pandemic response wasn’t politicized nearly as much as it has been now.

But there are some similarities. During the early waves of the 1918 flu, there was a patchwork of public health responses from states and local authorities—and the outcomes of their various approaches to flattening the curve was clear. Cities like New York that implemented public health measures early had low death rates. Meanwhile, cities like Philadelphia that waited to implement health measures—and those like San Francisco that relaxed their measures too early—had higher death rates. (Here’s how U.S. cities flattened the curve during the 1918 flu pandemic.)

Then, like now, there was also confusion about when to change or relax measures, says Thomas Ewing, a historian based at Virginia Tech. In Denver, Colorado, officials rescinded their mask mandate in November 1918 when the first outbreak of influenza had tapered down, but then a second wave hit the city, causing many to question if the mandate should be reinstated.

“In both pandemics, there’s been a lot of confusion, there’s been uncertainty, there’s been resistance, there’s been conflicting, contradictory recommendations,” Ewing says.

U.S. Naval Hospital corpsmen wear masks to attend patients in the influenza ward on Mare Island in California. Hospitals were also understaffed in the 1918 pandemic—but it was largely due to World War I. Today, there are few accounts of the adversity health-care workers faced.ALAMY

For example, in December 1918, the U.S. Public Health Service—the government agency in charge of the pandemic response—worried that the public was relaxing its attitude toward the pandemic despite resurgences. In response, the Surgeon General issued a reminder to take precautions like masking and social distancing.

At the time, plenty of individual people flouted mask mandates but there wasn’t much organized opposition to masking. One exception was the Anti-Mask League in San Francisco, which was formed in early 1919 after the city reinstated a mask mandate a mere two months after lifting it. The league held at least one public meeting with nearly 2,000 attendees to denounce the ordinance, according to the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine’s Influenza Encyclopedia.

Bristow says that most of the pushback to public health measures was largely economic rather than political. Some city public health officials and politicians pointed to one another’s policies to curry favor in midterm elections, but the debates were largely over details like whether to reopen businesses before churches, rather than opposition to the measures as a whole.

Still, as the influenza pandemic dragged on, public health interventions became even patchier. Masking policies were rescinded even as the country continued to see occasional spikes in cases—including when several cities recorded death rates in 1920 comparable to the first wave in 1918. Then, like now, there was some resistance to bringing back public health measures, like mask mandates.

But by the end of 1920, the influenza pandemic had begun to ebb. Although the nation saw yet another small wave of cases and deaths in 1922, there was far less attention paid to those deaths because, unlike COVID-19, historians say that the influenza pandemic hadn’t been in the headlines every day for years. Meanwhile, physicians and public health experts also expressed optimism that future bouts would be less severe.

Bristow wonders if resistance to public health measures would have grown to the extent the U.S. has seen in the COVID-19 pandemic had they been allowed to continue.

“Here we’re seeing that played out,” she says of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Americans don’t like to be told what to do.”

Fatigue leads to forgetting

Living with the constant worry of catching influenza during the early waves of the disease had proven taxing on society. Like Porter’s novella, blues songs from the era mourned the catastrophic scale and powerful impact the influenza pandemic had on American lives. One of the best known was Essie Jenkins’ “1919 Influenza Blues,” whose chorus lamented the virus killed the rich and poor, and would kill even more people as part of God’s plan.

That narrative resonated with those suffering the most from the pandemic, whose lives were remade by the experience.

But as the pandemic began to ebb, others began to feel an optimism for the future, and longed to move past it. Historians say this may be why formal efforts to research the causes of the pandemic and take steps to prevent the next one ultimately failed.

In the first year of the influenza pandemic, there was every indication that the U.S. Congress would do just that. Lawmakers at the state and federal level were concerned about future outbreaks and the public clamored for them to act. In 1919, Congress introduced a Flu, or Anti-Flu, Bill, which would have appropriated roughly $5 million for the investigation of the epidemic, with an eye to preventing future outbreaks.

Customers get a trim at an open-air barbershop in Berkeley, California in 1919. Businesses closed for shorter and less frequent periods during the 1918 pandemic compared to today, but ventilation was still emphasized as an important way to avoid infection from the virus.ALAMY

The law, however, soon lost steam. By 1920, the amount lowered to $250,000 as politicians objected to sending more funds to the U.S. Public Health Service—which was largely seen as having failed. Ultimately, no appropriation was made, which Nichols says “is part of the larger takeaway that the U.S. did not enact meaningful public health changes in the wake of the pandemic.”

Likewise, the scientific community couldn’t sustain efforts to investigate the virus that caused the influenza pandemic. In 1922, an editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association argued that there was a need to continue this research. While some scientists remained dedicated to that cause, by 1925, another editorial in the same journal noted that the “intense general interest in influenza … died down rather quickly.”

Nichols argues the country could have learned lessons about the importance of providing social safety nets and addressing health care inequities had it followed through on this research. Marginalized communities were at higher risk of dying from influenza in 1918 just as they are now with COVID-19—and yet there remain gaps in the country’s health care infrastructure that leaves them vulnerable to disease.

Ewing agrees. He notes there was little attention to these vulnerabilities in 1918—but in 2020, the research is overwhelming, especially now as the lingering effects of COVID-19 start to manifest.

Will we return to normal?

The good news, Bristow says, is that it seems there’s one lesson the country has learned from the 1918 influenza pandemic and that’s in record-keeping.

There is very little historical record or archival information from 1918. There was no real attempt to memorialize those who died in the 1918 pandemic because people just wanted to get past the trauma. Bristow says she had to sift through primary accounts from journals and newspaper headlines to write her 2017 book.

That seems not to be the case this time around. From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, libraries, historical societies, and local organizations began working to collect any and all records. Those records include individual testimonies, as well as efforts to find out how entire communities have been affected through interviews with grocery store workers, volunteer COVID-19 testers, children and their parents grappling with virtual learning, and more. There have also been a few temporary memorials to honor the victims of COVID-19.

That attention to collecting records could be useful for making policies in the future that could help the country cope with the inevitable next pandemic. Or it could just collect dust if Americans again want the trauma from the pandemic to disappear from memory.

Ewing predicts the strong desire to get past the pandemic will translate to a lack of commemoration or change, but Bristow tends towards optimism.

“No one has escaped completely unscathed,” she says. “But will that make us more humane with one another, more caring of one another? My hope is that trauma that everyone has experienced at some level will make for a more robust reckoning in the aftermath than we saw in 1918.”

If no one else is wearing a mask, should you?

Masking mandates are being revoked as COVID-19 cases drop. Experts explain why we still need to keep masks close at hand.

(Update 3/26/2022)

Once Hawaii drops its mask mandate later this week, no state in the United States will require everyone to wear a mask indoors to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Yet in many supermarkets, office buildings, movie theaters, and other indoor locations, some people are still masking up. But if only half, or a few, or nobody else is doing so, does the mask offer the wearer sufficient protection?

The question is becoming more urgent because even though rates of COVID-19 in most of the U.S. are currently low, they are rising in Europe—due to the fast-spreading variant Omicron BA.2—which has often presaged a spike here.

“It’s true that masks are most effective when everyone around you is wearing them. If someone is infected with COVID-19 and doesn’t know it, their mask is like putting a thumb over the end of a hose, preventing the virus from spewing,” says Jaimie Meyer, an infectious disease physician at Yale Medicine.

But she emphasizes that even when that infected person is maskless, anyone around them who has their own mask reduces the chance that those droplets will find their way to their respiratory system and sicken them.

Here’s what Meyer and other experts say about masking and how to gauge when it’s safe to ditch the mask, and when it’s not.

COVID-19 transmission in your community

In February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed its policy on indoor masking, recommending it for healthy people in indoor settings only in communities where COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are high.

To help figure out where masks are necessary the CDC published a new color-coded map revealing zones of low, medium, and high transmission. Areas of low risk, where people do not need to mask indoors, are indicated in green; as of March 24, this applies to most of the country.

Along with hospitalization and ICU numbers, counties are labeled red when new cases reach 200 per 100,000 residents. Several counties, especially in Montana, Kentucky, and Maine, are currently this color.

People in locations labeled yellow who are at high risk for severe illness are instructed to ask their healthcare providers whether masking is necessary. These locations also have more than 200 new cases per 100,000 but with fewer hospitalizations and ICU patients.

The recommendations are intended to provide protection on a population level and to keep healthcare systems from inundation. They are not designed to keep any individual from getting sick, says Jill Weatherhead, an infectious disease doctor at Baylor College of Medicine.

The 200-case threshold is “a really high transmission rate,” says Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center who blogs as “Your Local Epidemiologist.” To feel comfortable going without a mask, she prefers using a lower threshold, on the order of 50 cases per 100,000. Jetelina, who is vaccinated and boosted, recently shed her mask when rates in her county of Dallas fell below that number.

Of course, masks are still mandatory for people in certain situations. When California dropped its statewide mandate, for example, it kept masking requirements in healthcare facilities, prisons, and other congregate settings. Some private business and schools also insist on masks on their premises. And the federal government continues to require them for commercial flights and other transportation.

For people in a setting where masks are optional, the calculation for whether to wear one largely depends on individual circumstances and how much you don’t want to get sick, in addition to transmission rates around you, experts say. “A lot of people have resigned themselves that they’re going to get COVID-19, but it isn’t inevitable,” Meyer says.

The strongest protection against the disease remains vaccination, Meyer stresses. According to a study published in early March in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Pfizer-BionTech shots were 85 percent effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths in the residents of North Carolina up to seven months after their two-vaccination series. (Study participants had not received a booster, which would provide additional protection.) But masking may be the next most important thing you can do, she says.

People who have underlying health conditions or who live or work around such people must make a different mask calculation than others, Jetelina says. Those who are immunocompromised should nearly always wear a mask around others indoors, while people with a disease like diabetes that puts them at higher risk for COVID-19 complications might consider using a lower threshold, perhaps 10 cases per 100,000 in their community, she says.

Still others choose to mask because they have children who are vulnerable because they are too young to be vaccinated. Weatherhead continues to wear masks in stores and crowded indoor facilities in large part to protect her 4-year-old son.

To be effective, the CDC emphasizes masks must be worn consistently. Some people in areas with high transmission may think they are safe without a mask indoors when they remain more than six feet from others in the room. But it’s a misconception that keeping your distance inside reduces your risk of exposure completely, says Linsey Marr, professor of engineering at Virginia Tech and an expert on viral transmission. It’s true that viral particles are concentrated closest to an infected individual, she says, but just as cigarette smoke eventually spreads throughout a room, so, too, does the coronavirus.

Of course, everyone has a different level of tolerance and that should be respected, Weatherhead says. “A lot of factors are involved, and everyone’s decisions will be different,” she says.

For some people, including Meyer, “it’s exhausting to have to keep making a risk calculation depending on the situation,” which is why she has decided to keep hers on in shops and grocery stores and indoor spaces like her childrens’ basketball games, regardless of what those around her are doing. “It’s easier for me to just put on the mask and not have to decide every time,” she says.

One group who should always be masked: patients with COVID-19 who have isolated for the CDC’s recommended five-day period. During the subsequent five days, the agency instructs, assuming they are asymptomatic or their symptoms are resolving, they no longer need to isolate but must wear a mask indoors around others to reduce the chances of spreading the virus.

Mask quality and fit are key

A study from the CDC published last month in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly documents the protection that various masks provide. People routinely wearing an N95 or KN95 mask lowered their odds of testing positive by 83 percent compared with their unmasked counterparts. For surgical mask wearers, disease was reduced 66 percent and for cloth protections, 56 percent.

What this study and others like it did not specifically track is how many people around each mask-wearer were also covering their faces. But since it was conducted when California mask mandates were in place, many people were likely wearing them, observes Marr, who was not involved with MMWR study. She suspects the masks would have been somewhat less protective if more had been barefaced, but that the contrast between wearers and non-wearers would likely still be striking.

The MMWR research underscores the value of using a high quality, respirator-type mask like an N95 or KN95 versus a simple piece of cloth. In fact, the CDC, now notes that “properly fitting respirators provide the highest level of protection.”

“If there is virus in the air, your N95 is going to block over 95 percent of it,” a very high number, Marr says.

Don’t toss that mask

Anyone not currently wearing a mask still should keep it at the ready, experts say.

“I want to be optimistic because spring is here. But it seems like it might be an ominous time” because of the rise in cases in Europe fueled by Omicron BA.2, Yale’s Meyer says. She advises anyone not currently masking to pay close attention to COVID-19 rates in their area, in the event cases begin a steady uptick.

No one knows if a spike will soon materialize in the U.S., because the variant BA.2 generally doesn’t reinfect people who contracted the prior version of Omicron, according to a Danish study published last month, which has not yet been reviewed by experts. “It’s complicated to predict future spread here because it depends on how much BA.1 spread and how much more ‘wood’ the fire has left to burn,” the University of Texas’s Jetelina says.

“You should keep your mask at the ready because of what’s happening today, but also for what might happen tomorrow,” she says. “The mask helps you stay ahead of this disease.”

The COVID Authoritarians Panic Over The End Of The Mask Mandates

(Update 4/22/2022)

Recently  a federal judge in Florida finally struck down a federal mask mandate from the Centers for Disease Control. An extensive number of executive branch agencies have acted in authoritarian manner throughout the covid era – OSHA infamously attempted to cram down a vaccine mandate on every private employer in America, a policy struck down by the Supreme Court; the CDC blocked evictions for over a year based on the premise that millions would be thrown from their homes if they didn’t take action. But the CDC’s travel mask mandate has been particularly annoying for Americans, given the fact that all over the country, Americans have either been vaccinated or acquired natural immunity, and that there is no evidence whatsoever that cloth or surgical masks do anything against the omicron variant of covid.

Nonetheless, the CDC pressed forward this month with a new extension to its mask mandate, despite the fact that the CDC simultaneously argued that beginning in late May, it would relieve Title 42, a regulation designed to allow Border Patrol to turn away likely illegal immigrants at the border. That regulation was rooted in the premise that a covid emergency negated the legal requirement to process asylum seekers. The White House provided zero justification for the CDC’s extension; instead, White House press secretary Jen Psaki struggled to explain why toddlers on planes should remain masked, but attendees at the White House press room didn’t have to. “I’m not a doctor,” she spat. 

Of course, Psaki’s lack of medical background hasn’t prevented her from announcing that the best standard of medical care requires minors who are gender confused to receive puberty blockers on the path toward genital-mutilating surgery. But Americans shouldn’t expect consistency from their moral betters in the White House.

Upon the announcement of the judge’s ruling striking down the CDC mask mandate on the grounds that the CDC hadn’t actually bothered to follow its own regulatory procedures, the Left went into spasms of apoplexy. Public figures began posting pictures of themselves donning masks on planes: former Obama chief of staff Valerie Jarrett tweeted, “Wearing my mask no matter what non-scientists tell me I can do”; Roland Martin tweeted, “I don’t give a damn what some grossly unqualified Donald Trump judge said. I’m double masked and wearing goggles on this Nashville to DC flight. I had COVID in December. Y’all can KISS MY ASS about me not wanting it again. And any fool saying they don’t matter is a damn liar.”

Now, it should be said that nobody has actively banned anyone from wearing a mask. It is your choice to don one, as epidemiologically useless as such a gesture may be. But those on the Left seem to be under the wild misimpression that anything not prohibited is now mandatory – an act of pure intellectual projection springing from the Left’s insistence on collective rule-making. For those on the Left, individual freedom represents a threat to everyone; to allow individuals the ability to choose therefore undermines the entire scheme. Those on the Left simply project this mindset onto everyone else. Thus, they believe that anyone who opposes mask mandates wants to force everyone to unmask. 

This is untenable but predictable: for those on the Left, the collective is the irreducible unit of politics. There are no individuals. And anyone who disagrees is, in the words of Robin Givhan of The Washington Post, “childish and selfish.”

Or perhaps – just perhaps – the most childish and selfish among us are those who beg government agencies to exceed their statutory authority in order to ensure that we all mirror their favored priorities. Perhaps those who have spent two years declaring their authority over every aspect of Americans’ lives ought to consider the possibility that we’re happy to let them ruin their own, but that we would prefer they leave us alone. And most of all, perhaps the covid paranoics ought to spend just a moment considering whether there is a space between mandatory and prohibited where others might be granted a smidgen of liberty.  

Resources, “Does everyone need to wear a mask outside? Experts weigh in. A lot of factors can affect whether to keep your face covered while strolling, biking, or jogging outdoors”, By Tara Haelle;, “Opinion: Don’t Let The Masks Divide Us,” By Charlotte Pence Bond; “Why most of us should be wearing N95 masks: The short answer: Because they’re the most protective, and they’re finally widely available.” By Aaron Steckelberg and Bonnie Berkowitz;, “How to choose and care for your kid’s masks: The best mask is a mask your child will tolerate.” By Elliot Haspel; COVID-19 and the Global Predator: We Are the Prey.” By Peter R. Breggin MD and Ginger Ross Breggin;, “The Physics of the N95 Face Mask: You’ve seen them a million times. You might be wearing one right now. But do you know how they work to block a potentially virus-carrying respiratory blob?” By Rhett Allain;, “Do masks really harm kids? Here’s what the science says. As more states drop mask mandates, experts explain why keeping them on in schools is still a smart move for families and teachers.” BY AMY MCKEEVER;, “The lessons learned from 1918 flu fatigue, according to historians: More than a century ago, exhausted Americans just wanted to forget about two years of lockdowns and mask mandates—but experts warn against repeating history.” By Emily Martin;, “If no one else is wearing a mask, should you? Masking mandates are being revoked as COVID-19 cases drop. Experts explain why we still need to keep masks close at hand.” By Meryl Davids Landau;, “The COVID Authoritarians Panic Over The End Of The Mask Mandates.” By Ben Shapiro;

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