2020 certainly was nothing like what we anticipated. We have politicians giving medical advice and orders based on nothing but their own fears and pocketbooks. We have doctors absolutely amazed that we’re ignoring their advice. Really, when was the last time you had a doctor explain anything clearly to you.

Don’t get me wrong I think there’s doctors and medical practitioners out there risking their lives daily just to keep us alive but when it comes to credibility the medical profession has done themselves no favors. Take your pick of reasons, they’ve sold out to the insurance companies, the insurance companies have driven them to dehumanizing their service, and finally they no longer believe they need to explain why. In my case, I’m allergic to penicillin because my doctor was giving me penicillin for my allergies. Well that was long ago and by now most of us know that penicillin only works on bacteria. Doesn’t make me have any more faith in in the medical profession.

Then there’s our leaders, no I told myself I would take the high road on this one I’ll simply say none of them seem to agree on what to do or even if we need to do. The current trend in politicians seems to involve finding a coven of doctors that agree with your views and waving their words around like a magic wand.

In the early days of this pandemic, the medical profession was cautioning us not to wear masks. They had good reasons. There were not enough masks for the medical profession, not to mention the rest of us. If our panic response is to buy toilet paper in massive quantities than medical supplies would’ve had no chance.

Still when the experts finally decided that we should wear masks but not medical quality masks, a lot of us have to ask why. The medical professionals don’t want to use them why should we? The answer is  simple. The medical professionals are exposed to the virus hundreds of times a day. They need far better protection than we do. If I eat barbecue ribs, I’ll use a napkin. If I have hundreds of people throwing barbecue sauce at me, I’ll wear all the protection I can.

Printed ear savers

I’m going to give credit to the 3D community for coming up with a lot of innovative masks, mask bands and even respirators. The refreshing thing about this community was that they had no underlying motives for the models they provided, they only wanted to help. While browsing some of their 3D models, I came across an interesting article talking about what material made the best masks. It’s probably not what you’re using. I would never have considered cutting up vacuum cleaner bags to line my masks.

What makes a mask useful? Think of a big volleyball net and imagine that somebody is throwing golf balls at you. A lot of those balls will be stopped but based on the size of the net versus the balls, a number will make it through very easily. Adding more layers of net will improve your probabilities but sooner or later you will still get hit. Viruses are very small and the weave on your mask is typically much larger. For that reason, the filter element on a medical mask isn’t woven. Instead, it’s a random fiber arrangement.

Are masks really effective? Who do I believe? How do I decide what to do? I don’t know about you, but for the really difficult questions I turn to my spreadsheet. Rather than a decision matrix, I sat down intending to create a simulation that would settle the question of mask effectiveness.

Some seventeen seconds later, after a careful consideration of all the variables, I realized that this was something akin to a weather prediction model. My simulation might be finished sometime around 2023. I needed to simplify my model to something that made sense and might still demonstrate the mask principle. I decided to use a simple geometric progression model. In other words, each infected person will infect a fixed number of people each day. Easy to model, easy to understand.

Making a few arbitrary decisions, I started with two infected people and assumed that in normal interaction each person would infect one additional person every two days. You don’t need to tell me about all the factors I missed but I only wanted some guidance. At the end of 35 days, I had over 1.9 million infections. The numbers seemed about right, time to see how effective a mask needed to be.

Simulating everyone wearing a mask, I assumed that a mask was only 10% effective and lowered the infection rate by 10%. Each person was now only infecting 1.45 people per day. At the end of 35 days, I had 613,000. That’s an astounding drop. 10% effectiveness and my number of infections dropped by sixty six percent. Never a quitter, I changed the effectiveness by another 10% and set the infection rate to 1.4 people per day. At the end of my 35 days, I only had 186,000 infections. Less than one tenth of the infections I saw without a mask or to put it another way, 1.7 million fewer sick people. This is nothing short of amazing.

I know how many factors I skipped in my simulation. I also know that my simulation shows the general population and not my odds of catching the virus while wearing a mask. The way I see it the fewer people with the virus, the lower my odds of catching it myself.

Okay, I’ll admit I have no idea if wearing a mask cuts down on 50% of the infections or 10% of the infections. What I do know is that not wearing a mask does nothing for any of us. The numbers from my simulation make it clear that even minor effectiveness produces extraordinary results in reducing infections.

When I wear a mask, I’m showing that I care enough about the people around me to attempt to protect them. I’m not afraid of people thinking I’m a coward and I’m certainly not trying to show the medical profession that I’ll take their advice without question. The numbers make it obvious, the more of us wearing a mask, the slower the virus spreads.

When I see somebody not wearing a mask, I realize that either nobody ever explained this to them or they’re too self-absorbed to care about the social and economic chaos this virus is causing. Based on what I’ve seen it could go either way. I’ll leave that judgment to you.

To mask or not to mask? Why is there even a question?

© 2020, Byron Seastrunk. All rights reserved.