Editorial: Masks are a small price for mitigation

The Editorial Advisory Board
Topeka Capital-Journal

There are few peer-reviewed studies about the effectiveness of parachutes.

That’s because it’s difficult to recruit volunteers for an exercise in which half of people who jump off a plane are given a backpack full of rocks rather than an actual, life-saving parachute. It’s also wildly unethical.

Similarly, hard data about the effectiveness of masks worn in everyday life can sometimes be wanting. And it’s because there’s no safe way to recruit volunteers. You don’t want to expose subjects to easily preventable risks. Scientists are left with observational studies.

In other words, it’s blindingly obvious to those who work in the scientific field that covering your mouth and nose while around other people helps prevent illness. Like a parachute, it just works.

Not all parachutes are 100% effective, of course. Sometimes they break. But would you willingly jump out of a plane without one? Likewise, no mask can guarantee zero risk. Not even professional-grade surgical ones. But it’s so clearly better than the alternative that there’s no debate to be had. (Authoritative information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Public health officials stumbled in the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak by not recommending masks, which they all acknowledge today. This was for two reasons. First, they were working to preserve supplies for health care providers. Second, the role of asymptomatic carriers of the virus wasn’t understood.

We’ve resolved these questions now. Supply chains are better, and we don’t need medical-grade masks anyway. And most importantly, we know now that those who are infected but without symptoms are major vectors — wearing masks prevents them from spreading it further. In Germany, a study suggests that masks can cut spread by some 40%.

What does this mean in reality? It means that the rising number of infections in our communities could be slowed or stopped by simple common sense and understanding how the virus spreads. Spending time indoors, without face coverings, talking to large numbers of other people for extended periods, is risky. That’s why bars and restaurants are being closed by public health officials across the nation.

It also means that ridiculous Facebook memes about avoiding masks because of respiratory issues or buildup of carbon dioxide are junk. There are some medical-grade respirators that can cause issues in a small number of people. But the kind of simple face coverings we’re talking about here don't do so.

Masks may be inconvenient or hot. But they are a small price to pay for allowing some semblance of normalcy to return to our lives. You’d rather jump out of a plane with a parachute than a backpack full of rocks, right?