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The main message around masking during the pandemic is that this is a public health measure designed to protect others, particularly the most vulnerable. Since 70% or more of COVID related deaths occur to those over 50 years of age, our older residents are the ones most at risk. Our local COVID hospitalization and death rates seem to back this up.
However, for those who are more of the “what is in it for me” category, there is a growing body of evidence that masking offers a significant benefit to oneself. Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at UCSF, has been sharing some of her work — much of it observational — along with long-standing animal research that puts forth the premise that the amount of a virus you absorb is directly related to how sick you will get or if you get sick at all. The general category of this work is around “viral load.” In short, personal masking can help mitigate your risk of getting very sick, and perhaps even dying.
One of the things we are seeing is that as many as 40% of those with the COVID-19 virus do not exhibit symptoms; however, they are often unknowingly spreading the virus to others. No one really knows why that is the case. What is also observed is that in countries like India, in a very low income community like Mumbai, why is it that the severity of the disease is so much less than in many western economic countries? The theory postulated is that in places like Mumbai, wearing a face covering is the norm. In their case it is because of their longstanding problem with air quality. However, the net result is relatively lower number of serious symptoms and deaths than one would expect. This is but one example.
Another example the researchers share from the animal science folks is that there are studies that go back to the 1930s and much more recently, where animals have been exposed to a virus and at various thresholds of transmission with animal scientists measuring its impact on the animals. In most cases the virus does not take hold until the virus reaches a certain saturation in the air or contained environment. Some of the studies used types of facial barriers and found that those animals that caught the virus with basic protections, even for those that reach virus thresholds, had significantly less intensity of their physical/symptomatic response to the virus. From an intuitive standpoint it does make sense that the less absorption of the virus your body gets, the less likely you will suffer the worst of your body’s response to that virus.
What is important with this work for those who primarily only think of themselves is that there is growing evidence that masking can directly benefit them. However, from my experience those individuals are not easily moved by evidence. Nevertheless, for those who routinely mask, there is some measure of comfort knowing that by me masking I am taking steps to lessen my personal risks from others.
From this research, Dr. Gandhi says that almost any good facial covering helps in mitigating the worst of the disease, although there are always exceptions. You can find more on what Dr. Gandhi and her team have discovered by just Googling her name and the topic of “viral load.” It is well worth your time and maybe the time of people you know that are unconvinced about the value of masking in public.
Dean Germano is the chief executive officer of Shasta Community Health Center in Redding.