A research team at Brigham Young University has put together a guide to make sense of the science behind masks. Spoiler alert — you should be wearing them. Assistant professor of ecosystem ecology Dr. Ben Abbott told KUER’s Caroline Ballard how the review came about.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: You and your team went through 115 studies to compile this resource on mask science and mask etiquette. What were you hoping to learn?
Ben Abbott: This whole project started after a debate on Facebook between two friends. I wasn't involved in the debate, but I saw all of these really extreme claims about the danger of masks or how they were going to solve all of our problems. Finally, a friend turned to me and said, "Hey, Ben, you're a scientist. Why don't you spend some time looking at this?"
And I realized that there are so many people who just want to know what is the science on COVID-19 and on masks. So, I suspended my research program and three of my fabulous students spent night and day combing through the literature, putting together all of the recent work on the effectiveness of masks.
CB: Why do you think there is skepticism around mask wearing when the science is so clear?
BA: First of all, COVID-19 is a brand new disease. So, in the first few months of the pandemic, there were recommendations made by different agencies that were based on old information. Famously, the CDC told us don't wear masks. But since about April, the science has become crystal clear. But I don't blame anybody who has been skeptical or hasn't known what to believe, because there was this mixed messaging at the beginning of the pandemic.
There's also ... the politicization of science. Lots of people have gotten really skeptical about anything that people claim. So we tried our best to steer clear of the politics and only rely on the scientific studies that have been done on the subject.
CB: What about potential side effects? There are a lot of claims of people suffering from a lack of oxygen or an excess carbon dioxide. What are the merits of those?
BA: We looked into every study that we could find on social media that was against masks and we included that in our study. We found that every single one claiming that masks were dangerous were misinterpreted.
For example, lots of people are sharing a study that shows masks can reduce your oxygen level. They forget to mention, however, that those are patients who are dying of kidney disease, and only a portion of those patients had a decrease in oxygen.
We found overwhelming scientific evidence that masks are safe. There is no evidence that they reduce oxygen levels in healthy individuals or that they increase CO2 levels in healthy individuals. Masks have been used by doctors for centuries now. And one of the most convincing pieces of evidence is they've also been used by the public in many countries — demonstrating that they're safe among children, adults and the elderly.
The only groups that shouldn't be wearing masks are children under two and then people with severe disabilities, either a severely compromised respiratory system or somebody who can't remove the mask themself. That's just for general comfort and safety.
CB: Another thing you point out is that not only should you wear masks, but you've got to wear them correctly. What are your tips for making sure your mask is doing the job it's supposed to?
BA: A lot of these studies point out that mask wearing is never going to be done perfectly across different groups, especially among children. And yet they still find that kind of incorrectly worn masks have large benefits. They reduce the number of viral particles coming out of people's mouths.
It is important to try to wear your mask correctly. It's pretty simple. You put your mask on. Try not to touch it as much as you can. Clean it every day. It's recommended that you launder it either by hand or in a machine every day. And then it's important that you wash your hands before and after either you're putting your mask on or taking it off. And the reason for that is you're breathing through the mask and so lots of stuff can get stuck on the outside of the mask. However, with COVID-19 it doesn't look like that self-contamination concern is that problematic. Because mostly what your mask is doing is protecting other people from the virus that you may be carrying.
CB: Not wearing a mask has become a kind of political statement. On the flip side, is there a sort of performative element to wearing masks, say, by yourself in your car or on a zoom call? How do we get beyond using masks as a way to show your political allegiance?
BA: One of the discouraging things about this pandemic has been a lot of people are more focused on appearances and politics rather than the science and how to actually solve COVID-19. I am not a mind reader. I don't know what's in somebody's mind when they're wearing a mask or not wearing a mask. But I do know the science is absolutely crystal clear. The best way we can get back to normal is by the majority of us wearing our masks when in public.
Most studies identify that there's a tipping point around 80% of the population. So, if 80% of us were wearing our masks out in public, that would be more effective than a full society wide shutdown. Also what I think is encouraging is we don't have to wear masks forever. The evidence suggests that if we could all — 80%, or more, of us — wear masks for several weeks, we could get this under control and start getting back to normal.
Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews