The Fallacy of Masking

Wearing masks is a rather touchy, sometimes dangerous subject. There are individuals on both sides of the argument. Unfortunately, I work in an industry where those on one side are heroic humanitarians and those on the other are villains. Typically, such things don’t worry me, but in these days of cancel culture, it can be detrimental to one’s career, and by extension, one’s livelihood. As such, the essay below is a sanitized version of the original. When I first penned this piece, many weeks ago now, I was mad. Mad at still wearing a mask at work more than two years after two-weeks to flatten the curve. Masking was supposed to be a temporary solution to help ease the infection rate. Somehow, it has become standard operating procedure in healthcare culture and it’s chipping away at my soul. Fortunately, my wife stepped in after viewing what I had written and told me to take a breath. She said “_____ isn’t going to like that”. She was right, of course. They weren’t going to like it. So, I stepped away for a couple of weeks before coming back to complete the task.

TLDR; masks don’t work, they are unnecessary, and they’re a nuisance. You need read no further if you wanted to know my opinion.

When someone tells you that masking prevents COVID-19, you know one of two things: 1) they are ignorant, which is common, or 2) they are being disingenuous and selective with their information, which is also common. There are no other options available.

Do masks prevent disease? No, at least not to any appreciable amount I can find. Do they prevent transmission? No, not with any certainty. Do they decrease severity of disease once inoculated? No. Do they reduce viral load in the air? Maybe, but it depends on what you read and how that information is used. “Airborne viral load” doesn’t seem to corollate to inoculation, much less severity of disease, hospitalization, or mortality. In short, viruses get past masks, even N95s tapped to one’s face. I’m not kidding. ().

If you would just “follow the science”, Jerry. The battle cry of anyone that wants me to put one on. But does “the science” really support it? Not that I can find. There is data suggesting that they help and evidence saying they don’t. How can that be? It happens all the time. The problem is that most available data supporting or refuting the practice is weak. Studies suffer from poor design, confounding variables, and in some cases, outright bias.

“The science” argument assumes that science is always right. We should all know better. Science changes all the time. Science, by its very design, is never right or wrong. It is nothing more than a system of collecting data and applying it to a given construct. The best we can do with science is collect information and make decisions based on what we know combined with personal experience. Humans have been doing it this way for an exceedingly long time. Science is ever changing, providing data at one point in time from which we can only move forward. If anyone ever tells you that science “proves something once and for all,” you should run away.* The best we can hope for from scientific endeavors is to find information that supports or refutes our thoughts. That’s it, nothing more.

“1500 years ago, everybody “knew” that the earth was the center of the universe. 500 years ago, everybody “knew” that the earth was flat. And 15 minutes ago, you “knew” that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll “know” tomorrow.” – Kay, Men in Black

Unfortunately, rational behavior and the search for enlightenment and understanding went right out the window with COVID-19. I cannot explain why because this has not happened before in my lifetime. I believe the phenomena is unprecedented. Even in the face of overwhelming common sense – and sometimes supporting data – people continue to do things that defy logic. There are two things I learned a long time ago that seem applicable: 1) smart people can be really dumb, and 2) people is power are not necessarily the smartest people in the room.

But Jerry, they’re doing it for your own good. Be careful letting someone else determine what is best for you, especially when that someone else may have a personal stake in your compliance. Forcing folks to do certain things – outside of having laws to prevent society from slipping into chaos – is a path from which we cannot return. People that gain power rarely ever give it back. And people that concede control of their own lives concede everything.

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” – Ronal Reagon.

If you are genuinely concerned about how best to control exposure to pathogens, do not listen to a politician, do not talk to your doctor, and whatever you do, do not listen to me. Instead, seek the advice of someone that specializes in minimizing risk associated with exposure to dangerous things. I am of course speaking about Industrial Hygienists. Those folks know a thing or two about limiting exposure to hazards.

“[The] science and art devoted to the anticipation, recognition, evaluation, and control of those environmental factors or stressors arising in or from the workplace, which may cause sickness, impaired health and well-being, or significant discomfort among workers or among of the citizens of the community” .

In general, Industrial Hygienists support the notion that masking is not the answer. Their hierarchy of controls, which we use in pharmacy to handle hazardous drugs, is all about dilution and elimination of the threat through engineering controls (dilution, destruction, containment), administrative controls (limiting time exposed), and PPE (respirators, not masks). It is all about turning over the air in the space you are in and not hanging out with people that have active disease. Ever heard of an HVAC system? How about negative pressure rooms? Air Changes Per Hour (ACPH) anyone? Any healthcare professional reading this will be familiar with the concepts. We use them all the time in the hospital to control infectious diseases, at least as long as I have been in healthcare.

As I dig further into the question of masking, I find more data suggesting that these things can cause more harm than good ( Why is it that no one wants to talk about that? If someone tells you to do something and it causes harm, it would be wise to take a moment to assess the situation.

There is at least some evidence suggesting that masking children has led to reduced learning, reduced development, and physical, emotional, and social harms. My daughter is a speech language pathologist. She works for both a school system and a hospital. Ask her what it has been like for the last couple of years working with masked children. I can hear the frustration and concern in her voice when we talk about it. I feel bad for the families that will have to deal with the repercussions of this for years to come. It is heartbreaking. The value of a child’s health should never be placed below that of an adult. The adult protects the child, not the other way around.

But Jerry, if we can save just one life it will all be worth it. I hear this a lot when I oppose masking. It’s a strawman argument, perpetuating the idea that “anti-maskers” don’t care if people die from COVID. Simply not true. I don’t want anyone to die. It’s a terrible, deeply disturbing thing. However, humans simply don’t live with “zero risk” in mind. There are many examples of people doing things every day that come with inherent risk. If our society was designed to “save everyone” we would wear clothing made of bubble wrap, limit cars to 25 miles per hour, force people to wear helmets while walking on busy streets and eliminate all forms of air travel. You know, going down in a Boeing 747 over the Atlantic Ocean, albeit rare, is 100% fatal. Eliminating air travel is the way to go, no question about it. It would all be worth it if we could just save one life. Can you imagine a world like that? No? Neither can I.

As humans, we make decisions every single day based on risk and benefit. I am willing to risk the transatlantic flight to visit a beautiful foreign country. Others are too. It is how we live.

With that said, I am as guilty of perpetuating the nonsense as anyone. I have always considered myself a strong man, capable of making tough decisions even in the face of extreme adversity. I have had my share over the years. Well, here I sit, writing about being “forced” to wear a mask. To my shame and embarrassment, I caved to the masking issue as soon as my livelihood was threatened. It turns out that my moral and ethical values are worth exactly as much as my salary. My failure to “stick to my guns” has given me pause to reflect on many of my beliefs and where I truly stand. It turns out that cowardice comes in many forms.

In closing, I find no issue with people that choose to wear a mask. Go for it, it is a personal choice. I respect that. All I ask in return is the same courtesy. You do your thing and I’ll do mine. Perfect harmony.

*I have had many people tell me that science proves that God does not exist. I find that argument amusing. By saying such a thing, they propose that all science for all time has been completed and there is nothing more to learn.