Wearing a mask in public is for the protection of others more than the person wearing it. A cloth face covering is not as good as an N95 mask in protecting the wearer but can be effective in confining droplet spread to limit transmission of coronavirus to others.
It appears the major spread of the virus is through airborne droplets that another person can touch and transfer to their eye or nose or mouth. There is increasing evidence implicating micro-droplets that can spread through a room and remain suspended for a significant period.
Small droplets are released by just quietly breathing but certain activities — talking, singing, shouting and coughing — increase the quantity, distance and the degree of viral load in a droplet.
The greatest spread comes from sneezing, where we eject droplets with a velocity as high as 200 mph. The social distancing proviso of 6 feet has to do primarily with breathing or speaking softly.
The degree of droplet production with speaking is demonstrated by looking at the screen of your phone after you have had a conversation on speaker. The numerous speckles all over the dark screen are small droplets from speaking.
If you are in a well-ventilated space or outside, risk of transmission is substantially diminished. If you are in a closed space such as a vehicle, office or a small crowded store, the risk of infection will rise.
There have been high degrees of spreading in prolonged close-contact gatherings such as birthday parties, weddings and funerals. The risk when you are in a large supermarket with very few people for a short time will be relatively low, but the risk to the workers who spend the whole day there will be relatively high.
Mask wearing has a role in decreasing coronavirus spread by capturing the droplets that each person sheds. The goal of the mask is to prevent direct inoculation of another when speaking to them. It can be particularly helpful to stop droplet spread with coughing or sneezing.
A mask should be worn properly, covering the mouth and nose, and be reasonably snug. I have observed people wearing a mask over their chin or hanging from one ear. This is not going to be effective. After prolonged use, a mask will get wet and dirty and therefore not be as effective at stopping droplets. A cloth mask should be washed and dried between uses and a disposable mask dried and reused or replaced if you have another mask available.
The rule of not touching your face still applies when you wear a mask. Touching your mask, particularly if it is wet, can contaminate your fingers.
A mask does not need to be worn at all times. It should be used when you are close to other people such as in a store, closed room or group. I do not wear a mask when I run as I am in a rural area with few people, outside with a great deal of ventilation; I still try to maintain at least 20 feet from others.
Even if you do not feel sick, you should wear a mask when around others. People can spread the virus during their asymptomatic period for three to five days before becoming symptomatic. Nearly half of community spread is due to asymptomatic carriers.
I am very much in favor of trying to return our economy to normal. But to do so successfully requires careful adherence to minimizing droplet transmission. Continuing to avoid touching your face, eyes, mouth and nose; using social distancing; and wearing a mask whenever you are around others or in areas where you may leave droplets that others may touch, will be essential for us to be able to get back into activities.
Some individuals have politicized mask wearing as an infringement on their liberty. It is important to understand that we routinely place restrictions on one’s liberty to protect the public health. Speed limits and prohibition of drunk driving are restrictions on individual liberty to protect others. An individual’s liberty must not threaten another’s survival.
The recommendation of voluntary mask wearing is not working. When picking up takeout recently, I noted that none of the other seven customers wore masks.
To have a successful reopening of our economy and prevent a second wave, we must adhere to public health guidelines. The governor should temporarily order mandatory mask wearing when people are in public. Respect others; wear a mask to reduce what you release. Wear a mask for the benefit of other people — altruistic mask wearing.
Jerry Knirk (D-Freedom) is a New Hampshire state representative.