Masks and COVID-19

Unfortunately, most people seem to think that science is about “knowing stuff”. In my opinion, that is plain wrong. Science is about the methodology needed to find out about nature. Of course, once we find out we record our findings so others do not have to waste their time rediscovering, and it is this ability to “stand on the shoulders of others” that gets us to where we are. We can deduce things from what we know, but as Aristotle noted in his Prior Analytics, if we come across a problem for which there are no means to deduce, we have to induce the premises necessary to make progress. That means examining the observed data and making guesses. The better spread the data, the more likely the guesses will be good, but the nature of induction is that it can be wrong. That is the basis of Popper’s concern that the aim should be falsifiability, to get rid of what is wrong. In happen to agree that is a good objective, but it is not the only one, if for no other reason than if we do not induce new hypotheses, eventually there is nothing to falsify, but equally we may remain quite ignorant of certain aspects of nature.

So, how does this apply to COVID-19? When we started this, we knew very little, although in a very short time we had found the structure of this virus. Also, while it was a new virus, we do know quite a bit about viruses in general. If you look around the web, we see that there have been a huge number of hypotheses, usually asserted as fact. In New Zealand the hypothesis applied was, if you stop transmission for two transmissibility cycles, the virus, unable to reproduce, will be eliminated. Interestingly, some assert that isn’t science – it is brute force, nevertheless it follows logic and better still, it worked. 

Some asserted that we should aim for herd immunity. The estimated number of cases needed to get this vary, but let us put this at the dead minimum of 60%. I believe that is too few because the SARS virus is transmitted for an unusally long time from a patient, nevertheless the planetary population is, say, 7.7 billion. That gives us 4.62 billion cases minimum. The death rate seems to be about 5% across a broad population age group, so that gives 231 million  deaths as the minimum price to pay for herd immunity. If you don’t like the 5%, put in your own figure. Places with few cases and good medical care lower that, but to get herd immunity you need that 4.6 billion cases and do we have that many good hospitals? Sweden is sometimes cited as an ideal example. However, they have had 74,333 cases and 5550 deaths at the time of writing this from a population of a little over 10 million. The death rate is 7.47% and the infection total is about 0.44% of the population, which is a long way from herd immunity. Maybe the Swedes are very careful, but the virus is still reproducing and such care eventually fails for each person. 

If you check the web now, you will see all sorts of assertions, and some people seem to make up figures. The figures I use are those posted by authorities as confirmed cases. It is true there will be many more cases where the virus did not create symptoms, especially in the young, but unfortunately, these are merely incubators for the virus. Spain has had 300,136 case and 28,401 deaths, a death rate of alost 9.5%, so are there a huge number of unrecordered cases? Spain has a population of about 46.75 million, so the confirmed cases reflect about 0.65% of the population, however a random sample of 61,000 Spaniards were given blood tests and apparently 5% of them had antibodies. It is still unclear from that report what the antibodies are to, because they may be to coronaviruses as a group, and who has not had a cold?

As for more misinformation, originally the WHO stated there was no reason to wear masks, but now they are saying yes, masks are good. Then we see that masks are good because the virus is spread in droplets, hence the two meter distancing. Then we see statements that the virus is small and will be lurking as an aerosol, hence the masks won’t offer protection. What do you make of that? 

In my opinion, the scientific response is obvious. First measure the air around such patients and see if the virus is airborne. There are various ways this could be done. The second is to measure the efficiency of masks by pumping air exhaled from patients that are known to have the virus (by testing) through the masks and see if the virus is removed. If we did that, we would know whether masks worked, and more to the point we would know whether certain masks were better than others.The logic of masks is that they cannot do any harm, and they should stop some of the viruses. That seems logical, but surely we can do better.

10 thoughts on “Masks and COVID-19

  1. I have a feeling (that’s all!) that Covid-19 will be around for a while. I wonder if it’s changing, and if so in what way. I also think wearing masks is going to become normal, in some countries anyway, unless there is proof (as you suggest) that they’re useless.

    • I agree it will be around for quite some time. There is no policy now that will eliminate it, and elimination requires everyone to do the same thing. We have eliminated smallpox, but it was a struggle, and it was easier to get cooperation because even if you survived there was a visible mess left on your face. I would like to know the value of masks, but nobody seems to have tested them, and in my opinion, mask performance could be improved, and if we knew by how much they had to be, we might be better off.

      • True, and there is quite a range of masks worn by the public, from what I see. Everything from those paper ones, to dust masks intended for woodworking, to all kinds of cloth versions, including homemade. They are probably better than nothing in places where people can’t stay 2 meters apart, but no one knows how much better.

  2. Excellent essay. I wrote one in February saying it looked like we were cruising towards 450 million dead, if we did nothing special (New Zealand did).
    The uncertainties are enormous, and it’s not clear for how many weeks vaccines will work… Meanwhile the US proceeds with its Soviet solutions (no need to pay rents or mortgages…)

    • The US differs from the Soviet-type approach in that the Soviets would declare a party line and that was that. Both would seem to deny the problem at the top, but the US seems to differ in that people in power with other vested interests are squabbling like children in a playground and not really achieving much. My view, anyway.

    • They may not be 100% effective, but they should stop a lot of the virus, so they are most certainly better than nothing. We have no real information on them – they were largely unavailable here other than to healthcare workers, and we beat the virus internally before they became available. Hopefully we can keep it down, although returning travellers keep bringing in fresh doses.

  3. To begin with, if you wish to look at facts… this pandemic has been blown out of proportion. I am not saying COVID-19 isn’t real, I am saying the actual threat of it has been grossly exaggerated. The reason behind this is unknown and you can research your own conspiracy theory. I am merely looking at the facts, and removing the emotional element. The real numbers simply do not justify the closing down of world economies and such. Nor does it support making wearing a “mask” mandatory. Taking some precautions, of course makes sense. But we’ve been told since we were children to wash our hands and cover our mouth when we cough. As for the numbers… well they are not correct.

    First off, it has been proven that numbers have been inflated (there are reports of this from legitimate sources all the time, just do a little research). Secondly, they attribute almost every virus related illness and death to COVID19, regardless of what was the real root cause is/was. The flu, kills people every year, pneumonia kills people every year, upper respiratory disease kills people every year… but now they are counted as COVID19 deaths. So, if you were to subtract the people that would have died anyway, regardless of COVID19… what is the real death rate?? We will never know because almost all virus/illness related deaths are marked as COVID19.

    Now the real number simply don’t match the the scare tactics of the WHO, the CDC, the news and media and other organizations. Currently the Earth’s population is 7.7 billion people, there have been 14,460,376 cases… or 0.1877% of the entire planet’s population. Of them 605,000 people have died… that’s 0.0078% of the entire planet’s population… Now you can make these numbers scary by saying the death rate of those infected is 4%!!! But less than 1% of the planets population has been infected. The flu still infects more people than that every year.

    Another point of fact, as more and more people are being tested the actual death rate for the virus drops. However, again many of the test results have come under question as whether they are valid or not.

    So now to the mask… They say the mask isn’t to keep you from getting the virus but to keep you from spreading it. Well if you’re healthy, why do you need a mask? Healthy people don’t spread it. Most people don’t wear a proper type mask, and those who do, don’t wear and care for them properly (which defeats the purpose of a mask). They say the virus is a droplet, but so minuscule you breath it in. A bandanna, a cut up T-Shirt, or whatever isn’t stopping anything. Spend 5 minutes in a sandstorm, imagine the dust as the virus… I can speak from experience that a bandanna does nothing.

    They speak of the spread… if that were true all these protesters would be getting sick. Beach goers would be dropping like flies… This whole pandemic is based on misinformation and lies. It is ok to go to a big box store, but not church??? Well, either the mask works or it doesn’t. If you remove emotion and personal bias from the equation and just look at the facts… this whole thing has been nothing but contradictory information full of half truths and misinformation.

    Does COVID19 exist, yes. It is the mass threat and horrible pandemic they say it is… no.

    • Whether the pandemic is blown out of proportion is a matter of opinion, depending on what proportion you refer to. As for the economic damage, if everyone locked down fully for one month and we eliminated the virus there would be so much economic damage and so many deaths. If we ignored the virus, again there would be different economic damage and presumably more deaths. What is going on in many countries is some sort of mixed strategy, which runs the risk of getting the worst of both possible options.

      As for number inflation, that is almost certainly true, BUT it takes at least 9 months for an airborne disease to permeate through a small community (from the records of the pneumonic plague) so it is not over yet. The data on so many people having had it based on antibodies is almost certainly wrong – I shall have to use a full post to justify that comment. So the fact that so few of the world’s population have had it is partly because they have not been exposed to it. This applies strongly to Asia, where lockdowns have worked.

      ASs for masks, my comment was that we needed them tested to see if they work. As a hint, they might work better if you soaked them in water first, but again that needs to be tested.

      As for beach goers, the evidence is the virus does not affect the young so much, which again makes statistics somewhat useless unless we have a statement as to what the sample was. As I said in my post, we have the strange situation that when this pandemic started we knew very little of it. Right now we have gathered quite some data, but we have also gathered a large number of assertions that are most likely wrong, so we are in the position that we don’t even know whether what we think we know is right.

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