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At Last: A Study of Mask-Wearing

This has been a very busy time for scientific publication. Every few days, a large-scale trial yields some important data on a hotly debated topic.

A few days ago, researchers from Stanford and Yale released the results of the first randomized-controlled study on mask wearing. (If you read until this point and said to yourself, “Stanford? Yale? What do they know?” no need to continue, you won’t like the rest.)

Enrolled in the study were 350,000 subjects in Bangladesh, and the results are irrefutable. Mask wearing reduced transmission of CoVID by about 11% overall, but 35% in the most vulnerable populations (elderly). Even more good news: in villages where subjects were tasked with mask wearing, social distancing actually increased. This directly contradicts the “false sense of security" debate – that people who wear masks are lulled into a sense of security and forgo other social distancing measures. That did not happen in this very well-constructed study.

The bad news is that NOT ALL masks had the same effect. Cloth masks only reduced transmission by 5%.

It is important to note that this trial took place during a time of relatively low community transmission. Extrapolating the data to times of high transmission, and the efficacy rates of masks is likely much, much higher.

So, the take-homes are: Masks work. WELL-FITTED, three-ply surgical masks, KN95, and N95 masks are best. N95 and KN95 may be hard to find outside of healthcare settings, but surgical masks should be readily available. Cloth masks work but must be washed and do not work as well as the above.

For young kids in school, again, it is all about layers of protection. If everyone eligible is vaccinated, wearing a surgical grade mask or better, and anyone sick stays home, the risk of contracting CoVID from being in school is low. If no one is wearing a mask, case counts are rising, and vaccination rates are low, the risk of being in school is higher. While every family has to choose their level of risk tolerance, based on evidence coming out every day about the adverse effects of virtual learning on mental health and education, I would say keeping schools open and keeping kids in them should be of utmost importance—even if it means mask fights.

Not every child will be able to wear a mask, but everyone who can, should. In this Stanford/Yale study, only about 50% of enrollees wore masks as advised, but the transmission rate was significantly impacted by those who did.

Too often, this has been an all or nothing fight: everyone should mask, everyone should get a vaccine. That just is a set up for failure and unwinnable fights. We don’t need EVERYONE to do EVERYTHING. We need as many people as possible to do as much as possible.

Will some people take this message and say “Ah, I don’t have to because someone else will?” Probably. That is not new. That is human nature. We need to focus more energy on what WE individuals are doing at every opportunity to help the whole of our community. That is energy well-spent. Fighting to convince someone who won’t be convinced is energy well-wasted.

Last week, Hadley and I were shopping for her Homecoming dress. I tried on a pair of shoes and LOVED them. Hads HATED them. After an Academy-Award-winning cringe face, she said, “Don’t worry what I think, Mom. You do you.”

You have the facts. You believe in science. You do you.

NOTE: COVID-19 is an evolving situation. This information is current as of the date of posting, but is subject to change rapidly.


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