By Jemy Gatdula
If facemasks weren’t effective, then why do doctors wear masks when performing surgery? So the argument goes when the subject of public mandates to wear masks come up. The problem with this position is that public settings are obviously not operating rooms.
As practice goes, doctors wear facemasks during operations because, though in a sterile environment, it’s necessary to protect the patient that has been cut up and now has an open wound as such could easily get infected by germs from the doctor’s mouth and nose. Another reason, though secondary, is to protect the doctor from possible splashes when he is cutting up the patient.
And yet, this is not the situation being contemplated in relation to the mandatory requirement to wear facemasks with the ostensible objective of controlling COVID-19 spread: the lack of training that most of the general public have in wearing masks, the quality and cleanliness of the masks, the extent to which the masks itself can actually stop transmission from one person to another, the physical closeness of people to each other (including population density of the areas involved), the quality of air circulation, and so on are all clearly different to the circumstances inherent in an operating room.
Pharmaceutical and biotechnology expert Roger Koops (“Year of disguises,” AEIR, Oct. 16, 2020) asserts that whether you’re talking of a “surgical mask or N95 mask” such “has no benefit in the general population and is only useful in controlled clinical settings. Further, it has been considered a greater transmission risk than a benefit in the general population.”
In other words, masks are generally useless in relation to COVID-19 spread.
The huge error of many people, according to Koops, is believing that masks are barriers. They are not. They are “filters.”
The ordinary masks available to the public are designed to filter specific things (and only those things) and are not usually 100% effective. They are designed for normal breathing and for short durations (hence not meant to be worn for hours).
As pointed out by Koops, there is “only one type of mask, the surgical mask, which has shown any ability to reduce, not eliminate, virus transmission.” But — and here’s the crucial part — “the surgical mask is not intended for use outside of a controlled, sterile hospital surgical field where its use and function can be controlled. It has limitations.”
In brief, imagine you’re infected and wearing a facemask: the virus gets into the mask, the virus remains in the mask, the mask is now contaminated with the virus, the mask now carries the virus. The next time the wearer takes it off, breathes out, or does whatever normal human action, the virus is expelled into the surrounding environment. In other words: the face covering merely altered “the timing of the virus getting into the environment, but it now acts as a contact source and airborne source; [the] virus can still get into the environment.”
On the other hand, imagine you are not infected but wearing a mask. You will encounter in the environment various “virus, aerosols, or droplets, the virus and aerosols will likely penetrate. If the droplet is stopped, the surface is now contaminated. This means that if the surface of the covering touches the mouth or nose, you can become contaminated, i.e. infected.” Thus, “if you
inhale, you can become contaminated. If you touch the face covering, such as pulling it up and down, you can become contaminated.” Finally, “because the surface is contaminated, a person can also expel the virus back out into the environment just as with egress. This can be done by talking, breathing, coughing, etc.”
Koops makes a crucial point: “Stopping a *droplet* is not the same as stopping the virus!”
And you’re not even helping your neighbor, as some of the more pompous self-righteous defenders of mandatory mask wearing are wont to declare: you’re actually possibly more dangerous to those around you. “You are now becoming an additional potential source of environmental contamination. You are now becoming a transmission risk; not only are you increasing your own risk but you are also increasing the risk to others.”
The better practice is the tried and true simple Good Respiratory Practice: “cover your mouth/nose when coughing or sneezing. It is especially effective if you use a tissue or handkerchief as a receptacle and cup your hand around them. The hand now actually does serve more as a barrier. Plus, you will more likely remove the potential virus molecule from the environment by proper disposal of the tissue or washing the handkerchief. That is a practice we should be getting back to.”
There’s a reason why mandatory public mask wearing has never been imposed, despite every (and more serious) pandemic that happened before. And why no credible medical study or expert ever recommended mandatory public mask wearing.
But then again, before this year, sanity and common sense prevailed.
Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.