February 19, 2021

Masks are still doing the job.

Over the past year, we have been blessed with so much amazing science and innovation. We would be in much worse shape without these efforts. I have some websites I go to regularly for updates. One is The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), part of the University of Washington, one of the many fine institutions in Seattle that have made a difference in the pandemic. Another is Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center which has done so much with following variants and mutations of SARS-CoV-2, as well as support for vaccine trials.

One reason I look at the IHME website is to gauge how we are doing. I compare it to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, a collaboration with Johns Hopkins University and ESRI, a geographic information system (GIS) company. For instance today, per the Dashboard, the US passed 28 million infections and is bearing down on 500,000 deaths. The IHME prediction to reach 1/2 a million is about February 24th or 25th.

I have a screen shot of IHME below. I suggest clicking on the link and exploring it yourself. They adjust their predictions of deaths and hospitalizations based on how society is doing with masking and social distancing. Now they have added the new variants as a factor. If you look closely at the predictions for May 31, deaths will probably be around 613,890. Surprisingly the variants don’t make much of a difference- they only increase deaths to 614, 578. But if we stop masking and social distancing, deaths rise by 50,000 to 664,345. What has always surprised me when I look at these data points and predictions is how much difference universal masking would make. Deaths would decrease by almost 35,000 to 580,029. They have emphasized the difference masks would make if everyone wore them. This has been a consistent finding.

This cautionary tale of an attempted “immunity bubble” for an XPrize conference reinforces that masking is key. Testing has its limitations because of timing and false negatives. Since testing was relied on at this event, masking was not enforced and super spreading occurred. Interestingly the audio-visual staff who wore masks and isolated in the corner all remained free from disease.

We are lucky we have effective vaccines and they seem to be working, especially to prevent serious illness and death. But we still don’t have enough data about their effectiveness with the new variants, although the little we have is reassuring. We also don’t know if someone that is vaccinated can become infected with an asymptomatic case and infect others. What that leaves us with is to continue masking for the time being, to prevent the spread of the new variants, even if we are protected by vaccines.

Masks are important and the CDC has some improved advice on masking and helping its fit. Double masking may help. For those of you with hearing aids who are struggling and fear losing one of you expensive hearing aids, here is the best advice I have read on how to manage hearing aids and masks, starting with finding masks that don’t have ear loops. KN95 masks are more comfortable then K95’s and almost as effective. Finding ones that are not counterfeit can be challenging. What matters most is the fit with preferably no gaps.

The best news I read today is that Dr. Fauci feels like we will be able to return to a more normal life by next December. That is still a long haul. The vaccines are slowly getting into arms that want them and bit by bit we will be protected. Knowing we are safer after vaccination will help. We need to hang in there with hope. This study confirms that time in nature is restorative, so get your self some forest bathing, a walk in the woods or to the river. Already the days are longer.

Wash your hands, cover your nose, keep safe six, get the best fitted mask you can.

And finally, my caveat is that this is my experience and my opinions, which are subject to change as more information is available, and not related to the organization I work for. Thanks for reading.