Mask failure

I may be repeating myself (I’ve been known to), but I think we’ve had three major totally avoidable failures on Covid– failure to take air quality seriously; failure to scale-up rapid tests, and failure to take mask quality seriously.  You know what they do in the rest of the world?  Wear high-quality medical-grade masks that actually filter out pathogens and are often easier to breathe through and don’t muffle your voice making you hard to understand.  Now, there’s some good re-usable cloth/hybrid masks out there with filtration, but most people are just wearing fashion statements that barely cut it as a device for keeping us all safe and we could’ve and should’ve done so much better.  Yasmin Tayag in the Atlantic is on the case:

At this point, cloth masks are so ubiquitous in the United States that it can be easy to forget that they were originally supposed to be a stopgap measure. In April 2020, when surgical masks and highly coveted N95s were first in short supply, the CDC released its initial mask guidance and said cloth masks were the way to go for most people—noting that they could be sewn at home from old T-shirts. Even at that point, when the pandemic was full of unknowns, we knew that cloth masks, although far better than going maskless, weren’t as protective as other types. A growing amount of research supports the idea that our masking norms don’t make much sense: A recent study in Bangladesh, which has yet to be peer-reviewed but is considered one of the most rigorous to date to tackle masking, linked wearing surgical masks with an 11.2 percent decrease in COVID-19 symptoms and antibodies, while cloth masks were associated with only a 5 percent decrease. It’s no wonder that many other countries, including France, Austria, and Germany, shifted their mask guidance away from cloth masks toward those offering higher protection a long time ago…

Unless you work in health care, the CDC still recommends masks made with at least two layers of washable, breathable fabric. A big reason for this is that, yes, surgical masks are still in limited supply, according to the FDA, and so they must be prioritized for health-care workers. Though the shortage appeared to relent this summer, when widespread vaccination led to a dip in demand for both surgical and cloth masks, the rise of the Delta variant precipitated another major mask crunch.

But that’s not the only reason masking habits haven’t shifted. Part of the problem is that the enduring mask wars have helped frame mask wearing as a simple binary. “Unfortunately there’s been so much misinformation that’s come out about masking that it’s become so polarized,” Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, told me. “People are just divided into either you’re masked or you’re not. And that would be like saying everything that has wheels”—including a tricycle and a jetliner—“is the same.”

Faced with this binary, Americans generally don’t pay enough attention to the quality of a mask and how it’s worn. As the Harvard epidemiologist Bill Hanage told me in an email, we’re still wearing cloth masks because they’re “expected to still be better than nothing.” And they really are far better than nothing: He likened surgical masks to a sturdy, well-made umbrella and cloth masks to the cheap kind that inverts. “Both are better than a plastic bag held over your head, which is itself better than nothing,” he said…

But America’s complacency about masks is not simply the result of individual decisions. Public-health agencies could have prioritized using government resources to remedy the mask shortage, as well as simply mailing all Americans more-protective masks. “I can’t speak for the CDC,” Hanage said, “but I would hope that they would be able to convey the message that all masks are not alike, just like all umbrellas are not alike.” A spokesperson for the CDC told me that although the agency believes that N95 masks are “better at protecting the wearer, and if available should be worn,” cloth masks have been shown to be an “effective method of source control,” according to CDC research, and are still recommended when N95s aren’t available. (The spokesperson did not mention surgical masks, and did not respond to a follow-up question.)

All that said, this part really bugged me:

Many less scientific reasons also play a role in our continued obsession with cloth masks. Even if you’re not making cloth masks at home, they’re generally more affordable than surgical masks because they are meant to be reused. (That being said, the Bangladesh study found that even a surgical mask that had been washed 10 times was more effective at filtering particles than a cloth one.) A 24-pack of cloth masks costs $9 on Amazon—about 37 cents apiece—while single-use surgical masks are about 30 cents each and N95s are upwards of 63 cents. For the same reason, cloth masks are considered more eco-friendly—a nontrivial consideration, given mounting concerns about the waste generated during the pandemic.

As the rest of the bold text makes clear, the only reason a surgical mask is “single use” is if you needlessly throw it away (or it gets truly dirty for some reason).  A “single-use” surgical mask is better than a cloth mask after 10 uses! (Non-woven polypropylene is the bomb!) Sure, if you are working in the Covid ward, throw that thing away (and make sure it’s an N95), but the idea that you need to throw away a mask after a trip to the grocery store or for a couple hours ordinary wear is not just wasteful, but belied by plenty of good evidence.  

So, get yourself a surgical mask and, ideally wear it with a mask extender for a better fit (as I know I’ve written before, this can easily double your mask efficacy). There’s also plenty of affordable and available N95’s and KN9’s for situations when you want to be extra safe.  And just reuse it.  

Can your personality (and an algorithm) predict your gender

As I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before, I’m a pretty big fan of that takes social science research to come up with ways to help people think more clearly– and has lots of fun, social-science-informed, quizzes, etc.  They’re latest is a quiz on 18 personality traits that they then use to predict your gender with 80% accuracy.  (They predicted I was male, with 85% likelihood).  It was pretty fascinating to see on which traits the gender differences existed and where they were largest.  I’d just tell you here (okay, I’ll tell you one– interest in sex), but it’s more fun to do their quiz to see if you can actually predict which trait differences go with which gender (I got 100%!)  Importantly, they point out there’s literally hundreds of psychological traits where they find no difference.  Of particular note in my case, I came out closer to the typical male on 9 of 18 and closer to the typical female on 9 of 18, but my overall pattern (they use a Logit model) strongly predicted me to be a man. 

Anyway, you really, really should spend a few minutes with it– it’s really worth your time.  And definitely report back your results and discuss here.  

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