I’m not anti-mask. The N95s are helpful. Other masks do protect other people to some degree. They need to be worn when social distancing is not possible. Local laws should be followed. Masks do not replace hand washing, social distancing and once properly on should not be adjusted or touched. Because this is difficult, they can give people a false set of security. Alone, they are only a part of the solution.
If Covid becomes endemic, this means it is here to stay. I hope not. I do not see a vaccine being developed very soon - it’s very hard.
It’s important to look at this from a public health standpoint and not an individual perspective. As individuals we want guarantees that if we do X, the outcome will by Y (virus protection). The reality, though, is that people will get the virus regardless of protection. However, by taking a comprehensive public health approach, we reduce the overall incidence, and thus, over time, reduce the risk to the individual. We don’t eliminate that risk of contracting the virus - not even with a vaccine. But we greatly reduce it. By doing that, we give individuals who do get sick ready access to use the health system and we give healthcare workers all of the resources they need to treat the cases they do see.
What’s happening in countries that have serious problems - like the US, like Brazil, like China initially - is that they have largely fumbled the public health response by trying to accommodate individual ‘rights’ and ‘needs’. Consequently, they’ve put the entire population at risk by failing to bring down the number of disease vectors.
Epidemiology is all about math. Person A has the virus, and now can transmit it to any number of people in his or her vicinity. If we’re lucky, that person lives alone and either doesn’t work at all or works from home and rarely goes out. If we’re unlucky, that person lives with a family of 10 in a crowded apartment complex, goes to a mega church two or three times a week, works at a grocery store 6 days a week, and regularly socializes and shops around town. One person can spread it to hardly anyone over a 7-10 period, or they can spread it to literally hundreds of people within a 24-hour period. And once that person has transmitted it to even just one person, you have the same situation all over again. So in theory, it’s possible for one person to be responsible, both directly and indirectly, for hundreds, if not thousands, of cases.
Epidemiology is concerned with trying to control disease vectors. If we’re talking about a virus like malaria, dengue, or West Nile virus, then the vector is the mosquito, and the efforts focus on trying to remove disease-transmitting mosquitoes from the area, which is accomplished by doing things like removing standing water, spraying chemicals in the air, and cutting down on weed growth - all that. In the case of a virus, the vector is us. The focus becomes controlling human behavior to reduce the number of disease vectors.
Why do I go off on a tangent about epidemiology? To explain the purpose of wearing masks. It is NOT to guarantee that you don’t get sick. It is to reduce the number of droplets that can escape from your mouth. This is important because from a public health standpoint, we’re trying to use math against the virus. We’re trying to reduce the number of droplets that escape into an environment where people may come into contact with each other. If nobody is wearing a mask, you’ve got maximum number of droplets and the environment is risky. If everyone is wearing a mask, then you’ve minimized risk, at least relative to the situation.
But of course, wearing a mask is one factor in the entire equation. If you want to really, really reduce your risk of catching coronavirus, stay home as much as possible – period. Of course there is the intervening reality of needing a job, needing occasional social activity, needing to shop and all that - I get it. But still, the absolute best way to reduce an illness that relies on human-to-human transmission is to greatly reduce human-to-human interaction. Full stop.