I Still Wear A Mask, BUT…

It’s only for show.

I’ve worked as a technician and engineer in the chemical industry for over 20 years. As part of that job, I’ve been trained in such things as HAZWOPER (Hazardous Waste Operator), which means that I’ve been trained in the proper handling of hazardous materials. Proper use of PPE and then proper selection of PPE is very much a part of this training. This includes respirators… or as a layman might know them: masks.

What has disconcerted me from the very beginning (among other things) was this whole mask ordeal. Early on it was noted that at a minimum N95’s were what was needed to protect against the SARS-2 virus (aka the Coronavirus behind COVID-19). Surgical and cloth masks were not extremely effective, if at all. When I heard that, only to have cloth masks mandated in cities and counties across the country, I scratched my head. Then I realized something… it’s only theater. It’s like the TSA at airports. They are their mostly to make everyone feel like something is being done, not to actually do anything.

Let me break something down for those who might need a little more explaining to understand where I am coming from…

Respirators are rated by what is called a Protection Factor (PF). A standard N95 dust mask has a PF of roughly 10. It is a rough number that is a calculation of the % of filtration and pass through that a mask might offer (I don’t know the exact calculation off the top of my head, but you’ll see in a minute that it isn’t wholly necessary right now). It can be somewhat higher or lower based on how it is worn, such as how well formed is the metal band across one’s nose or if they are bearded (like me) or shaved clean.

Next is the half-face APR (air-purifying respirator). This bumps the PF roughly to 100… yes, a 10-fold increase in protection. For one, these use cartridges which are interchangeable depending on the use (not all cartridges are N95 because it is not always needed). Another addition is a rubberized seal around the points of contact. A half-face APR is better if sized and worn correctly, but it still has some flaws, such as breaks in the seal that can occur when talking or moving.

Then there is the full-face APR. These shoot the PF up to around 1,000. Again another 10-fold increase. The reasons here is that these seal around the whole face which is much more reliable than the half-face APR where the seal crosses over the nose area.

To provide further protections, there are then PAPR’s (Powered Air-Purifying Respirators), SCBA’s (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus), and a handful of other varieties that offer varying degrees of protection depending on the use.

To wear any of these devices, the law (and good sense) requires that one be sized properly and then fit-tested, which gives the final Protection Factor after the user performs exercises such as talking and moving in varying ways to test the effectiveness of the seals to keep the breathing directed through the filters and minimizing any possible air coming in from elsewhere. One must also be shaved in these tests because beard hair and stubble will impede the mask’s ability to seal against the face. Positive pressure SCBA’s, PAPR’s, and other positive pressure respirators eliminate these worries, of course.

But before anyone rushes out to try to purchase and use any of these, each of these, from APR’s to SCBA’s and everywhere in between, are for environments that demand that EVERYONE in the contamination or hazard zones be wearing one. One also should be trained and qualified to don them. That includes physical exams and a pulmonary and breathing test, as well as the fit tests mentioned above. But one thing in particular that makes them not ideal (besides the overkill protection and added efforts for maintenance, training, etc) is that they all have exhalation ports. In other words, the air is exhaled through a port and not through the filters.

When everyone is wearing the same PPE, this simple fact doesn’t matter. It also assumes that the user isn’t breathing out air that adds toxins to the atmosphere. With a virus, this isn’t the case. The risk with SARS-2/COVID-19 is that anyone could possibly be infected at any given time and thus be adding to the virus load in the atmosphere around others. This is why a non-ported N95 is most ideal. Note that I said “non-ported”. The N95’s are a kindof best-case-use-scenario for the general population as they offer protection from breathing in viruses as well as blocking any viruses being exhaled by infected individuals. The other respirator options would offer better protection for a healthy user, but it would offer everyone else ZERO protection if the user is infected. As we know from incomplete testing and the vast variety of symptoms from people who have the virus, including many who are asymptomatic, it is highly unlikely we’ll ever know truly who and who isn’t infected at any given time.

All these long-winded explanations are to illustrate that I know at least a little bit of what I am talking about. The point here to provide effectiveness in any scenario is that whatever air is breathed in or out must pass through the filtration medium. Also, that medium must be effective in capturing the particles. Cloth, even surgical masks, do NOT fit this criteria. Only a small portion of air, if worn properly, goes through the cloth and it’s already been shown that most cloth mediums do not filter out the virus.

Of course some would argue that the virus is trapped in water particles that themselves get trapped in the cloth. Even if this is the case, repeated use of the cloth would continue to push the virus out or pull them in through the cloth. And that’s even IF they were worn properly or the virus actually goes through the material at all. Ever wear glasses with a mask and complain how they fog as you breath? That’s air bypassing the filter medium, folks. So one can argue that they in fact offer maybe some protection. But again… that is a big “maybe”. And maybe if they help even a little bit, some might feel that it is better than doing nothing.

So then one has to consider some other things. For one, I am a person that has trouble breathing in a mask. It is the same with N95, APR, and others. I have been able to wear them in the past, but mostly because I switch to mouth-breathing. I cannot breath effectively through my nose with a respirator. And that is frustrating. But because of the ports, respirators offer something that helps with the next problem: re-breathing.

Re-breathing is a phenomenon in where one keeps breathing in the same air that they just exhaled. While most of the air exhaled is pushed around the mask or through it, there is some of it that remains right there, ready to be pulled back in. My particular issue is that I start to overheat… quick. Plus with my other breathing issues (I have mild apnea, a deviated septum, narrow air passages – like off-the-goddamn-chart narrow – and other problems), even a cloth mask puts a strain on me. Where is that strain felt? My heart. In other words, the thing meant to keep me healthy is actually putting me into mild-acute duress and harming me. Certainly not enough that I need to panic, but still. Hmmmm…

If we all had ready supply and access to (non-ported) N95’s and that is what everyone had to where, this wouldn’t even be a thing. I wouldn’t have a whole lot to say other than my own complaints of discomfort and the issues coupled with re-breathing. Unfortunately it isn’t the case. We’re all being asked to simply wear some form of a cloth face covering, and that is the problem.

So why then do I wear the mask? Partly because it’s mandatory where I live (and in much of the country) and I don’t want to be stuck in my house 24/7. Another part is being a sheep, or following the pack – an “everyone else is doing it so…” way of looking at it. And then partly is because of the theater and how there are a lot of people out there that truly believe that the masks are fully effective and keep them safe, so seeing others without masks make them feel uneasy and in some cases even confrontational (which if you really felt unsafe around someone not wearing a mask, wouldn’t the better option be to put more distance between you and the other person?).

Next question then is that why would the government tell people to wear masks if they weren’t effective? My answer to that is that they needed to look like they are doing something. Even if that something is just for show, sometimes governments or other entities need to perform an action to give the appearance of action, even if it only maintains the status quo. Many people (I’d argue less informed people – and note, not dumb people, just less informed people – for example people not trained in HAZMAT like myself) believed that putting on the mask acted as a barrier. They believed wearing gloves provided them protection, only for them to behave like normal touching every surface and their face negating the whole purpose. The government needed to enact some measure that made others feel safer.

But if they aren’t effective, why continue? To this, I argue this: when has the government ever admitted that they were wrong? When have they admitted doing something just for show? Typically, much like many of us, we double down on our decisions, because we really believe them, or we hope that either everyone simply capitulates or it becomes normal enough that few question it. I’ve heard plenty of people saying that this is a power grab by those in charge and they are only testing us to see how far they can push us, and in some aspects that might be true. I lean away from that thinking. I believe it is more of the population demanding action from the government and hence almost encouraging them to grab power to appease our demands. If we all collectively told the government to fuck off when this thing went down, would they have done anything?

What do we do now then? How do we continue if we know that masks are largely ineffective and only a show? My answer is to play along… for now. Pick your battles as most people barely have time to even begin to care. Maybe write or call your local, state, and US government representatives. Start asking them to look further into this and to begin scaling back the decisions that make little to no sense in the spread of this disease. We also must seek to understand that no matter which action we take, no matter what decision is made, it won’t be perfect or fool-proof. People will get sick and die, much as they have been. But we can do our best. Practice good hygiene. Avoid high-risk areas or scenarios. Take walks out in the sun. Take vitamin D supplements. Eat healthy. Practice more healthy habits. Spread the word, much like I am trying here, trying to remain impartial to politics. Try to do so by trying to see that others will not sway easily, nor should we expect them to. Focusing on our own behaviors though is the best option. Don’t just out and out refuse to wear the mask unless you are ready to either be refused service or you are ready to be confronted (or arrested in some jurisdictions).

As has been said by many, we are all in this together in one way or another. No matter what is done, I encourage people to be compassionate, not confrontational. We all handle these events in a variety of ways and each have our own levels of comfort with what is going on. Try to keep that all in mind as we all go about our lives.

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