COVID, How Masks, Ventilation and Science Stop It

Surgical MaskBEVERLY HILLS, CA ( 2021/1/23 – There have been questions about the effectiveness of masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. How effective are masks and what other science besides masks and vaccines will help stop COVID?

After many decades of use in surgical theaters, it is considered obvious from experience that surgical masks mostly protect patients, not doctors. When patients are highly contagious, doctors wear hazmat suits. For doctors treating Ebola, wearing a mask is considered inadequate.

Before germ theory was known, doctors not only didn’t wear masks, they didn’t wash their hands or surgical instruments either. Death from infection post-surgery was rampant. With an understanding of germ theory, and having seen the tremendous difference hygiene makes in patients surviving surgeries, doctors donned masks and gloves.

That masks save lives, but not always, is a fact determined empirically and not proven by scientific studies. Scientific studies of masks are scarce. Deliberately exposing an unmasked control group to diseases would be unethical.

COVID-19 is a lung infection. Obviously it’s not good to have a COVID-infected person breathe on us.

The COVID virus is tiny, nanometers in size, capable of getting through just about anything except a positive-pressure hazmat suit or maybe a NASA space suit. However, COVID is not floating around typically as individual virus particles. The COVID virus adheres to droplets expelled by an infected person. While a hazmat suit would be more effective, and at the same time much more costly and cumbersome, keeping infected aerosols off us by other means is generally a sufficient defense.

Wearing surgical masks that cover the nose and mouth keeps those virus-laden droplets to the infected person. If you’re in a room of infected persons, and only you are wearing a mask, then their infected aerosols are going to float through air, land on your mask, and some of the virus particles will be sucked through the mask into your lungs as you breathe. Yuck. What else should we consider?

In preventing any infectious disease, it is vital to understand the transmission process. Different diseases spread in quite different ways. Let’s take a moment to understand how disease transmission can vary depending upon the disease.

Legionnaire’s Disease is a lung infection. The bacteria that causes it is around us everywhere in bodies of water, yet only those who breathe it get infected. Legionnaire’s Disease is mostly spread by defective air conditioning systems that have standing water that culture the bacteria then blow air across it to spread it.

It is possible, but extremely rare, to get Legionnaire’s Disease by drinking contaminated water. Even then, it isn’t the water drinking that does it, rather the person breathing at the same time as drinking. It is always the lungs with Legionnaire’s Disease.

Malaria and plague are spread by insect bites. Cholera and salmonella are spread by surface contact. Influenza and TB are spread by droplets. Measles and influenza spread through droplets, but can be transmitted by surface contact by a contaminated hand that touches eyes, nose or mouth. Some droplets diseases are lungs-only, others can be hand transmitted. Scientists now know which it is for COVID.

When COVID-19 was new it was unknown how it spread, so every precaution was taken. Scientists have found that COVID-19 transmission is airborne like TB and Legionnaire’s Disease. Not by hand contact like influenza and measles. TB and Legionnaire’s Disease cannot be spread by surface contact, only if breathed in. And so with COVID. Out of 3 million cases of COVID, only two cases are suspected to have been caused by surface contact, by touch.

The COVID hygiene rituals performed to prevent spread by surface contact may seem reassuring, but are merely rituals. However, cleaning does help in blocking the spread of influenza.

A word of warning about disinfectants. Harsh chemicals should never be applied to porous surfaces. For two reasons. One, if we read the fine print on the bottle, it says such chemicals are only known to kill germs on hard surfaces. Two, once embedded in porous surfaces, it can be impossible to remove toxic chemicals. Continuous exposure may lead to environmental illnesses or allergic reactions. Never spray a pillow, cushion or a pet’s bed with disinfectant.

What helps block the spread of COVID, that many don’t yet know? Better ventilation. Where the air is meticulously circulated and filtered, we are much safer from COVID. Scientists have found that sitting in an airplane is safer than being in a restaurant. Even if sitting right next to someone with COVID, that you will catch COVID is highly unlikely in a commercial airliner. If they are wearing a mask.

Because air circulation and filtering are effective against COVID transmission, it is vitally important that teachers and students not reenter schools with broken or inadequate ventilation systems. Many cities, including here in Beverly Hills, have schools with broken ventilation systems. City governments should be testing school building ventilation and rating it for safety before opening any schools.

We should have scientists researching improving ventilation systems in businesses to see if that can make them safe to reopen. And, we need more science on those persons who are superspreaders.

Not everyone is a potential COVID superspreader. It’s been found in scientific study that if 20 people are infected with COVID and go to a wedding, most of the people who catch COVID there will be infected by the same person, not the other 19.

That some of us are much more infectious spreading COVID than others seems related to how much a person expels aerosols when breathing, talking or singing. Please don’t sing during COVID. That makes anyone a superspreader.

In theory, we could create a simple test to rate how “wet” a person’s breath is.  Have those who are wettest, who would become superspreaders if they later become infected with COVID, take extra precautions against getting sick.

Anti-maskers protested and denied the effectiveness of masks during the 1918 pandemic. And, there is a half-truth to their thinking, because masks may not do enough to protect the wearer. Politically, that masks protect others, and much less so the wearer, doesn’t appeal to narcissists.

A question anti-maskers might ask themselves is how they would feel about being operated upon by a surgeon who didn’t wash his hands. Would that seem ok? Because that’s the sort of reckless germ exposure that those not wearing masks, or wearing them improperly, are inflicting upon their neighbors.

A reader writes: How the 2 sides use what they call “Facts” to manipulate the people. I feel we should post Neutral Facts. So, in the case of masks, your article states that Covid is breathed in. We simply post that and the results of people catching it with and without masks.

Regarding COVID mask tests, there are no scientific mask studies to report because running medical experiments that may kill otherwise healthy people is illegal.

For “Neutral Facts” to exist the world would have to be unchanging and our science perfect. As a scientist, I expect our understanding of the facts to improve as new studies, technology and insights become available. Something we now feel confident is true may be disproved or refined later as scientific knowledge increases or mistakes are corrected. Furthermore, scientists understand that some things are provably unknowable (see Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle).

The world and our understanding of it are constantly changing. Our understanding of the world effects us deeply by the decisions we make. When the outcome of being mistaken or being found guilty may be homelessness, imprisonment or death, facts become very personal, not neutral at all.

That lobbyists and lawyers exist who are paid to dispute obvious facts means there will always be someone to argue that the truth is not the truth, and if it is the truth, that someone else is to blame. Just this week a Republican senator said it is not Republicans, but all Americans who are to blame for the insurrection. He argues that BLM and Antifa have somehow made riots generally acceptable, that fanatics invading the chambers of Congress to topple the government is nothing special.

Updated 2021/1/25