Sometimes it’s hard for me to wrap my head around how, in the middle of a lethal pandemic, wearing a mask is now seen as a political statement rather than an exercise of good, common sense.
Because really, it’s not much to ask. And doing so shows care and concern for the health and safety of your fellow citizens—as well as yourself.
Simple protection for everyone
As you may know, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently updated its guidance to stress that masks don’t just protect others—they also help to keep the people wearing them from getting sick.
And now, there’s a new study out of Denmark, called DANMASK, that investigated this topic further—analyzing whether those flimsy paper surgical masks provide any protection to the wearer.
According to this study’s results, at least, they don’t seem to offer much of a benefit.
However, like most of the scientific facts we’ve established around COVID-19, this finding has already been filtered through the same fractured lens that has colored every important national conversation in recent years. And as usual, the interpretations vary wildly based on political persuasion.
In fact, I even heard someone say that this study proves that mask wearing doesn’t offer any protection at all. But let me be clear: that’s not exactly what researchers found…
Putting personal protection to the test
This study is important because it’s the first time researchers have been able to test mask-wearing in a randomized controlled trial—which remains the gold standard for scientific evidence.
Data was collected back in April, when masks weren’t anywhere near routine like they are now. (Health authorities in Denmark weren’t even recommending them yet.)
The same study would be impossible to perform now, as it would be considered unethical to ask subjects to go without masks in the middle of a pandemic. And, as it stands, this research actually offered better protection to subjects who might have otherwise gone mask–less!
Researchers divided 6,000 Danish citizens into two groups. The first group wore paper surgical masks when they went out in public for a month. (It’s worth noting that while these masks are very effective at preventing the escape of small particles, they don’t fit as snugly as N95 masks do.)
This group watched an instructional video on proper mask-wearing and received 50 free masks. The other group served as a control—they weren’t told to wear masks, but were instructed to simply follow the current public health advice.
Antibody testing confirmed that none of the subjects had been infected with COVID-19 prior to the study. And the researchers set out to see if wearing a mask could cut the risk of future infection.
After one month, 1.8 percent of the mask wearers became infected with COVID-19, versus 2.1 percent of the group that went without a mask.
And predictably, there are armchair experts around the world claiming that this is proof that the mandates that public health officials have advocated for so fiercely—like mask-wearing and social distancing—are unnecessarily restrictive.
Masks still slow community spread
Where do I even start here? First, let me point out the obvious: We’re still talking about a 16 percent reduction in infections.
And that’s without asking the participants if they wore the mask correctly, wore them every time they went out, etc. (You and I have both seen people wearing masks ineffectively… like under their noses, around their chins, hanging off one ear… the list goes on.)
The other (and probably more important) point about the study is that it didn’t test masks as a way to keep infected people from spreading the virus. And, well… that’s the whole reason the surgical mask was invented in the first place—to protect the patient from the surgeon’s germs!
That’s why I recommend taking this study’s findings with a big grain of salt. Because practically speaking, it changes nothing. We know that when everyone wears a mask, community spread declines dramatically. That’s plain physics—fewer wet droplets and aerosolized particles are making their way out, which means fewer opportunities for you to be exposed.
In countries with high mask compliance, infection rates are low. And there’s absolutely nothing surprising about that. After all, we’ve used masks to fight outbreaks of numerous infectious diseases throughout history.
So if you want the real takeaway of these results, I leave you with these two things to keep in mind:
- Masks are still critical for community protection. The more people who wear them, the less exposed we all are.
- Don’t be overly confident if you do wear a mask—because as this research shows, you are not bulletproof. Which is why you need to stay vigilant and continue boosting your immunity. (Learn all about my top immune health recommendations in my Complete Guide to Year-Round Immunity.)
President-elect Biden has said that he will ask all Americans to wear a mask for his first 100 days in office. And I could hardly think of a simpler or more impactful request, even as vaccines and at-home testing kits begin to roll out.
Still, don’t forget to wash your hands properly and keep at least six feet of space around you in public. And perhaps the biggest ask in the days leading up to Christmas and New Year’s: Avoid large gatherings and plan to cook at home. It may not be ideal, but it’s one way to help keep you and the people you love safe this holiday season.
Until next time,
“How Much Does Wearing a Mask Protect You?” WebMD, 11/19/2020. (webmd.com/lung/news/20201119/how-much-does-wearing-a-mask-protect-you)