What is a bigger factor in preventing the spread of Covid-19: Masks or Social Distancing?

Another variant is on the verge of swamping the US, so we are being reminded to fully vaccinate, wear a good mask, and social distance. Of those three recommendations, vaccination is the most effective. However, its protection is not 100%, so the other two measures remain necessary. Most of the attention has been focused on masks (especially now that their required wearing is being lifted across the US) but social distancing seems to be a far more effective means of controlling Covid-19. If you’re already keeping six or more feet from other people, wearing a mask would seem to be significantly less of a factor. Still, people find social distancing far more burdensome than wearing masks which is probably why its role has been downplayed.

According to The Max Planck Institute masks are far more effective than social distancing.

Masks protect better than distancing, study finds

New research shows that 9.8 feet (3 meters) of social distancing are not enough to ensure protection from Covid-19. Even at that distance, it takes less than five minutes for an unvaccinated person standing in the breath of a person with Covid-19 to become infected with almost 100% certainty.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that if both people are wearing well-fitting medical masks, or, even better, N95 or FFP2 masks, the risk drops dramatically.

Other studies have made similar findings.

I guess it depends on your definition of social distancing. If by social distancing, you mean avoiding indoor public spaces, then it’s obviously superior. If you simply mean keeping 6 feet away from people, it’s inferior to high-quality masks if you going to be in places with low ventilation for a significant period of time. Airborne particles will eventually spread and fill up area.

The problem with any discussion about mask usage in the general public and COVID is that mask composition and usage varied so widely. If you mean masks “as worn in the ICU”, then masks work great. If you mean masks “as worn by the general public”, then they work poorly. The general public seems to think that wearing a droopy, fabric mask below their mouth provides them the same protection as a tightly fitted N95 mask that healthcare workers wear. This creates two issues. One is that their mask provides little to no protection. The other is that people operate under a false sense of security and put themselves in risky situations thinking that their crappy mask is protecting them.

Many of the recommendations for masks in the public were based on laboratory tests. But as anyone can see in any city, the general public is not wearing lab-quality masks and they are not wearing the masks properly. It doesn’t matter if a XYZ mask provides 100% protection from the virus in the lab if the public doesn’t wear XYZ masks. If instead they wear crappy masks and wear them poorly, the results will differ greatly from lab tests. If you personally want to be protected, wear a well-fitting, high quality mask like N95. Anything else–such as a cloth, procedure, or surgical mask–will have highly variable and dubious protection.

Cite? All the numbers I’m seeing are way down. There might be another variant, but what it’s doing can’t be described as “swamping”.

But the difficulty with answering your question is that the same people who follow the masking guidelines also follow the social distancing guidelines, and vice-versa. We can tell that the combination of both is effective, but without controls, it’s difficult to tell how much is due to which.

The new variant, Omicron BA.2, has already been prevalent in Europe for several weeks, and is likely to be the dominant COVID variant here within the next few weeks.

However, it may not cause a large amount of serious illness in the U.S., as many people are either vaccinated and boosted, and/or were infected by the original Omicron variant.

How about vaccines and boosters? No, they aren’t perfect protection, but they do make the difference, most of the time for most people, between being asymptomatic or a bit “under the weather” and requiring serious medical treatment. Some people seem to discuss Covid as if we’re in April 2020 instead of April 2022. :face_with_raised_eyebrow: