Today I turn 31 in the year 2020. The world is chaotic (to say the least). But there is so much for which to be thankful. We have an opportunity in this dark time: we can use this as a pathway to finding our similarities and common ground. We can use this as an opportunity to show compassion toward our fellow human beings. Don’t believe me? I have a challenge for every person reading this.
If you’re ever feeling alone, think about the population of the country where you live. I currently live in the United States – a country with a population of 328.2 Million people. Approximately 27% of Americans report using Google as their primary search engine. That means approximately 88.614 Million Americans use Google as their primary search engine.
That means that whatever the statistically most likely predicted completion of a search phrase is results from millions of people searching that phrase.
This means you are not alone. With every crazy question you have for the internet, you are not alone. For these first fifteen, I’m going to be very general. Then, once this concept has been demonstrated, let’s go on a journey. Some of these are funny, some are depressing, some are revealing.
1. “Is it…”
2. “What to…”
3. “Does the…”
4. “Are there…”
5. “Do I…”
6. “Why is…”
7. “Who was…”
8. “Did I…”
9. “Where are…”
10. “Am I…”
11. “How to make…”
12. “When will…”
13. “Does the United States…”
14. “How many…”
15. “How often…”
That’s a doozy.
Okay! So 15 questions in and you’ve noticed that Americans are just as confused about our units of measure as the rest of the world and things do seem to be interesting. Plus, if you’ve been sedentary and are questioning while your bowel habits have changed, you’re not alone. Drink more water, eat more fiber, and start going for more walks. You’ll feel better.
These next questions are for those of us that recognize that search histories get a little weird when you’re writing. So, let’s start looking at some of the autocompleted questions related to writing research I’ve seen lately. These get a bit dark and others are truly revealing.
1. “What do serial killers…”
2. “Why do serial killers…”
3. “Why do wives…”
4. “Why do husbands…”
5. “Why do partners…”
6. “Do cows…”
7. “How to fake…”
8. “How to destroy…”
9. “Why doesn’t…”
10. “Humans are…”
I warned all of you that was going to get dark.
There’s one final search I am going to show you – it leads to one of my favorite poems I had forgotten about and hadn’t read in over 10 years.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers (314) – Emily Dickinson
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm – That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea – Yet – never – in Extremity, It asked a crumb – of me.
I hope you can hear Hope’s song, and even if you can’t right now, know that you are not alone in searching for it amongst the noise.
What were your autocomplete results like when you searched similar beginning terms? Were they the same as mine? If you have suggestions of other terms for me to search please leave them in a comment 🙂
I am so thankful for your company on this bizarre journey through search engine autocompletes on my birthday. If you enjoyed this post, please share it, like, or comment. Without you, this post would be stored quietly on a server somewhere. Have a wonderful weekend ahead 🙂 With Love – Lo.
So I’m watching Trey The Explainer and he mentions this written language used by the Minoans called Linear A. It is related to and pre-dates Linear B. I love historical mysteries like this. Why? Because I love linguistics. I’ve talked about this previously a little when talking about my accent.
The Evolution Of Language
Languages have evolved over time and are still evolving. As an editor, I am in favor of embracing newly defined versions of languages specific to geographic locations and unique communities. By defining language systems and fighting to preserve, rather than erase them, we fight language extinction if only in the written form.
I recognize that this gets to be a tricky area because depictions of dialects within racial communities have had a strong tendency to be inappropriate. Period. This is why I think it’s important for the rules of any language to be set by native speakers, that way if someone is attempting to write in a specific way to represent a dialect they are doing so in a consistent manner that has been created accurately. Sadly, this is a very slow process. Linguistics research, in general, is slow. You can help by participating in Accent Tag!
Since languages are constantly evolving, written languages are evolving along side them when present. One of the most fascinating cases of language evolution to me is that of the evolution of alphabets representing sounds – whether they are complete syllables or individual vowels and consonants.
Linear A is the “undeciphered” ancient Minoan script that is similar to the later script known as Linear B.
Why Can’t We Use The Rules Of Linear B To Read Linear A?
Current interpretations of Linear A try to assume Linear B preserved the same rules. One of the issues I currently have with this assumption is that language evolution doesn’t mean that “shared phonetic symbols sound the same”.
In Europe, that’s not how phonemes translated to/from written languages worked – and there are letters that have fallen out of use in English and German since the rise of the printing press and Northern Renaissance. Then, during the Enlightenment some European dudes in really fancy pants decided lots of European languages needed to have defined grammar, structure, and spelling.
We can assume that as the language evolved into Linear B vowel shifts and consonant shifts happened, changing the assumed pronunciations for these symbols. Therefore, it’s an incorrect assumption to backward apply pronunciation and meaning since Linear B is a younger language. That’s like trying to read and understand Old English using the rules of Middle English.
How Would We Translate Linear A?
So what should we do instead? As with any problem, we have to establish what we know.
Well, we can’t look at anything Greek because genetic evidence suggests that the Minoans weren’t from Greece, rather they were from the East, meaning that the older language to look at would not be Indo-European.
After the fall of the Minoan Civilization, their culture, language, and genetics did merge with the Greek people.
They were seafaring traders that interacted with people living as far as the Iberian peninsula and Egypt. This provides us with some starting information to figure out a bit.
Another clue may be the unique behavior of the mathematical system that they used, that included a built in log scale. Mathematical systems can be a great indicator of the history and culture of a people because they develop out of necessity for explanation.
So what could Linear A’s parent be? Peter Z. Revezs seems to think it’s a shared ancestor of Hattic and Hungarian languages, making it a member of the Uralic language family. This also means we can use the algorithm developed in this paper to get more consistent translations with our growing set of written examples. Their consistency and applicability is compelling. What’s unique about this paper is that it examines only the linguistics using a computational approach and nothing having to do with DNA sequencing or the anthropological history of human remains. That said, more recent studies looking at the oldest remains of individuals come to similar conclusions. In fact, a number of individuals have now come to the same conclusions using vastly differing methods, but there’s still a significant amount of disagreement. […I do recommend reading that thread if you want an interesting source of entertainment and great laughs. There’s some incredible pettiness between researchers who can’t agree on anything and have absolutely no sense of what they look like to everyone watching. Have your popcorn ready.]
Why Is Linear A So Difficult To Crack?
If the Minoans were such prolific seafaring traders, why is it so hard to decipher their language when we are able to decipher Egyptian? Well, we don’t have a ton of writing samples.
This means that whatever Linear A did originate from could be unrecognizable without seeing the in between pidgin forms that could be present at all of their trade locations and then building a linguistic timeline. We don’t have a large enough sample size for that. Hopefully, as we find more remnants of Minoan trading, most recently in places like France and Serbia, a timeline could develop to support or debunk the computational relationship to the Hattic language establishing it as a member of the Uralic language family.
Why Does Any Of This Matter?
The evolution of language matters because it’s one of the ways we can understand the evolution of the human brain and we can understand the things some cultures found important enough to write down. The written component of a language provides us with one small piece of the puzzle that is a dead language. The more we understand about how languages evolved, the more we can understand about contact between different human groups as well as how their civilizations were structured. Language provides huge insights into details about general views, such as the self and how one relates to past, present, and future.
All languages require the transmission of information from source to a receiver. This information must be encoded in some way. This information must then be passed to the recipient via a channel – such as a physical medium or sensory perception. This is the tricky part – if the recipient can’t decode the information effectively things can be problematic. We can’t decode Linear A, we can’t read things written in Linear A. To better talk about this I’m going to focus on language encoding because decoding is the reason why it’s all important.
We have 5 primary ways that we’ve communicated (encoded information) over time:
Signed Languages (Phonetic / Symbolic)
Interpretive or Body Language
Okay, see? You’re not crazy for thinking emojis are a natural part of English. Illuminated manuscripts contained illustrations to complement or work in place of written words, occasionally, in line. Pictographs are some of the oldest forms of language we have if you don’t want to count early stone stippling forms that often predate full pictographs on some continents. We have absolutely no way of knowing how languages that use these symbolic languages pronounced their words and often the false assumption that they had simplistic language structures is made. Modern symbolic languages and improved understanding of language evolution has provided evidence that this is not the case. One of the problems with pictographic languages is that they rely on subjective interpretation to convey messages. This leads to opportunities for miscommunications and that’s how arguments get started over who sent who the wrong emoji and what it meant.
Purely spoken languages with no preservation disappear when the people do. This is why many indigenous languages are endangered, and why one of the only good things that came out of the messed up stuff those evangelical missionaries did during the colonization of the world was to come up with ways to translate the Bible into lots of indigenous languages. This didn’t save all indigenous languages and there are many that still need help to be preserved by supporting the sovereignty of these nations to teach public schools, print road signs, and write government documents, and have local media stations dedicate to indigenous languages. These methods have been used to save Welsh, Maori, and some indigenous languages here in the United States. I first learned about these efforts in 2006 when Congress passed the Esther Martinez Native American Language Preservation Act. This program runs out in 2024 and has not been enough, with many native speakers threatened now more than ever by SARS-CoV-2. When all innate speakers of a language die out, the reality is the language is gone forever, even if recordings and written documentation of the language remain. This is because a spoken language is more than just words. As previously mentioned in my post on accents, how a person sounds when they speak communicates information to the listener. With dead languages (no original speakers remaining) this information that could be compared to epigenetics in the sense that histone modification of gene expression is passed down through generations and can be traced through relatives based on their environmental exposures and life experiences. It’s weird.
Written phonetic languages are those that tell you exactly what they sound like. Or at least they try to. Vietnamese and Arabic are both great examples of a written phonetic languages. It’s important to note that not all languages will neatly fit into either a Written Phonetic language or a Pictographic language – Modern English and Japanese both doing great jobs of demonstrating this and Linear A is an additional example.
Spoken languages rely on body languages, subjective implication, and contextual interpretation for the full communication for information. Written phonetic languages, while preserving a bit more structural information about a language, without the other components provide the bare minimum regarding the information being conveyed. Subjective interpretation of written phonetic languages is something that requires…
An accidental study and total violation of human rights lead to the discovery that humans will always develop natural language when in a sufficiently socialized group, even if non-auditory. Natural signed languages do not naturally possess a phonetic linkage except in communities where there is full integration between auditory and non-auditory communicating communities.
Some phonetic signed languages are constructed languages. When I was a kid, I learned Cued Speech with a childhood friend. We didn’t really talk using words, instead relying on our own sign language I wish I remembered today. She used Cued Speech to learn how to use phonetic pronunciation in a speaking world and I used it for speech therapy.
Signed languages are distinguished from body language by the use of specific gestures with unique meanings and the defining unit features of a language required to designate grammatical rules. When a sign language dies with no record, much like a spoken language, it is considered a dead language and even the signed languages that American Sign Language was based on have now died.
Body language is the major component to the communication of language that is often left out. It’s the most subjective, easy to misinterpret, and complementary to spoken/phonetic language or signed languages. Body language can often be broken down into “universal” and “non-universal”.
Body language studies are fairly controversial and some of the best studies focus on the behaviors of non-human primate species. “Universal” body language seems to have some level of genetic predisposition and in neurotypical infants is among the first forms of language to be understood. This “universal” body language is considered easier for neurodiverse individuals to learn thanks to clear definitions.
“Non-universal” body language includes gestures that may fall into a scenario where gestures can represent a number of things depending on context related to a local region, spoken language, and a specific culture. This kind of body language is highly subjective and evolves (or becomes extinct) quickly. This kind of body language is the kind often related to miscommunication, misinterpretation, and culture shock. What may be polite to one person may be like slapping another person’s grandmother.
Linguistics Is More Complicated Than This
I don’t want anyone to be under the impression that this is all there is to linguistics. I have barely scratched the surface with the above introductions to inaccurate terms that are a bit friendlier to a non-jargon seeking audience. My interests tend to focus on the documentation of unique variants of languages and the cracking of written languages that are not yet understood so they can be decoded. If you’re interested in linguistics, you should read primary literature on these topics and consider getting involved in citizen science efforts such as the Accent Tag.
Language extinction hurts everyone. Because language gives structure to abstract experiences, loan words between languages allow for the expression of and adoption of words for human experiences that had not previously been given concrete language or attempts at understanding. That means that, in some regard, by preserving global language diversity, we have the ability to control our intellectual evolution.
I advocate for people to:
Learn about threatened and endangered languages
Learn the basics of linguistics
Learn about language evolution, so it can be embraced and accepted
If you enjoyed this, please like, comment, and/or share – it helps me know which types of content my readers want to see.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my rambling about Linear A and linguistics today. Without you these would be bits of data floating around waiting to be accessed in that 1.2 petabytes we call the internet.
Today we did something crazy. We drove from Missoula, Montana to Eureka, Montana and back to give a friend a ride back to civilization from their family’s compound after they tested negative for COVID-19. What a great chance to show everyone this amazing place I live!
I am blessed to live in a place of wide open spaces and the optical illusion that creates a bigger sky
Where glaciers collide with clouds
Flathead Lake is always a welcome sight
Flathead Lake is a gem
We hit a bit of rain on our way, but it eventually subsided.
As with any good Montana road trip you have to stop for the wildlife.
Don’t worry – they move eventually
Nearing Eureka as it begins to get darker
Blue sky still visible at 9 PM? Not for long!
Near Trego, Montana the last bits of day find their way into this beautiful night
We managed to catch the sunset on our way in to town
As I’m pleased to share with you some of the magnificent clouds we witnessed about 15 miles south of the Canadian border at the port of Roosville
As we return from Eureka we see signs reminding us to social distance and stay close to home. Missoula County and Lincoln County both have 0 active cases. Our friend safely in tow, they are also high risk, have been isolating, and need to get to Missoula for a doctor appointment that cannot be done over a video chat.
Whitefish looks desolate. There’s no one on the roads here. It makes sense – Flathead County is among the hardest hit in the state – every case that’s been traceable has been connected to travel. Flathead County is where the airport for West Glacier and Whitefish is. We head south toward Kalispell.
We stop in Kalispell to charge the car and use a disposable barrier for handling the charging cable. Charging will require a couple of hours.
It’s dark, so the pictures aren’t going to be very interesting for the rest of tonight. We will be safely back in Missoula soon.
And there’s your Montana road trip during this crazy time. The world is a mess. Stay safe – hold your family close.
An organization called Masks Save Lives is currently calling out a link between “low mask acceptance cultures” and how badly COVID-19 outbreaks are affecting these areas and their failures to flatten the curve once outbreaks began. Research potentially supports this division, a 2009 study in Australia found that the data could not be assessed for if cloth mask usage reduced seasonal infections in the public due to low compliance by participants.
The CDC now recommends wearing masks and numerous websites have come out with instructions on how to make a cloth one (here’s one!). [update 15 July 2020] A new study by the CDC also found significant reduction of transmission from 2 symptomatic hair stylists that tested positive for COVID-19, but all 139 exposed clients were protected by both the stylist and the clients wearing masks. With all this information available there are individuals still refusing to wear masks and the argument is that the reason for this denial is rooted in our culture.
Is there something to the cultural divide? We’re going to look at the United States, specifically (though the next Tweet is from the UK).
Why Do People Not Wear Masks?
Mask acceptance is not as easy as mandates and public health advisories. Beyond the scientific and home care acceptance, it must not be seen as a threat. Previously the lack of compliance in the Australian study may have been related to an element of social acceptance, however this was not studied at that time. If someone is uncomfortable wearing a mask they won’t. One community that may feel this impact are ethnic and racial minorities in the United States. One 2010 study investigated the barriers to mask wearing among urban Hispanic households in cases of upper respiratory infection. The findings concluded that these communities required higher risk perception scores before adopting face mask usage. This led the researchers to conclude that face masks are unlikely to be effective for this community in the case of seasonal or pandemic influenza like conditions. The participants voiced concerns about social acceptability of masks within their communities – if they would be viewed as the source of illness – while others mentioned potential embarrassment.
Consideration should also be given to variations in societal and cultural paradigms of mask usage. The contrast between face mask use as hygienic practice (ie, in many Asian countries) or as something only people who are unwell do (ie, in European and North American countries) has induced stigmatisation and racial aggravations, for which further public education is needed. One advantage of universal use of face masks is that it prevents discrimination of individuals who wear masks when unwell because everybody is wearing a mask.
At this time the adoption of universal mask usage in the United States is tenuous and has been unnecessarily politicized.
§ 18.2-422. Prohibition of wearing of masks in certain places; exceptions.
It shall be unlawful for any person over 16 years of age to, with the intent to conceal his identity, wear any mask, hood or other device whereby a substantial portion of the face is hidden or covered so as to conceal the identity of the wearer, to be or appear in any public place, or upon any private property in this Commonwealth without first having obtained from the owner or tenant thereof consent to do so in writing. However, the provisions of this section shall not apply to persons (i) wearing traditional holiday costumes; (ii) engaged in professions, trades, employment or other activities and wearing protective masks which are deemed necessary for the physical safety of the wearer or other persons; (iii) engaged in any bona fide theatrical production or masquerade ball; or (iv) wearing a mask, hood or other device for bona fide medical reasons upon (a) the advice of a licensed physician or osteopath and carrying on his person an affidavit from the physician or osteopath specifying the medical necessity for wearing the device and the date on which the wearing of the device will no longer be necessary and providing a brief description of the device, or (b) the declaration of a disaster or state of emergency by the Governor in response to a public health emergency where the emergency declaration expressly waives this section, defines the mask appropriate for the emergency, and provides for the duration of the waiver. The violation of any provisions of this section is a Class 6 felony.
Code 1950, §§ 18.1-364, 18.1-367; 1960, c. 358; 1975, cc. 14, 15; 1986, c. 19; 2010, cc. 262, 420; 2014, c. 167.
Masks And Accessibility
I was unable to find documentation online of how those with disabilities that inhibit the use of masks are handling the situation or even recommendations for these individuals on how to stay safe.
Update 14 July 2020: recommendations currently stand that individuals requiring modifications to wear masks should instead self isolate and not wear the mask. These are not going to be the people attempting to show a printed off the internet ADA card while not social distancing and yelling about their rights. These individuals may have a medical letter from a doctor explaining the specifics of their condition, but this does not exempt them from wearing masks inside commercial businesses. It instead requires businesses to make accommodations, such as curbside pick up or delivery. According to the Southeast ADA Center individuals that should not be wearing masks for accessibility reasons include:
Individuals who have any respiratory condition (such as COPD, asthma, and cystic fibrosis) that may be worsened by wearing a mask.
Individuals who cannot remain calm and functional while wearing a mask due to PTSD, anxiety, claustrophobia, or other anxiety disorder. Masks have been shown to induce hyperventilation, elevated heart rate, and panic attacks in these individuals.
Individuals with Autism/Autism Spectrum Diagnoses (ASDs). Sensory hypersensitivity can induce panic in response to having the nose and mouth covered, fabric textures, and the feeling of masks touching their faces.
Mobility impairment that requires an otherwise independent individual to need assistance. Many people cannot make an assistive caregiver materialize out of nowhere and preservation of autonomy is really important.
Anyone using mouth or tongue control devices. This includes motorized chairs that use the sip and puff control mechanism.
-If you must go outside or to a place where you are not able to practice social distancing with an infant, cover the infant carrier with a blanket, which helps protect the baby, but still gives them the ability to breathe comfortably. Do not leave the blanket on the carrier in the car or at any time when the baby and carrier are not in direct view.
-Children who are considered high-risk or severely immunocompromised are encouraged to wear an N95 mask to best protect themselves.
-Families of children at higher risk are encouraged to use a standard surgical mask if they are sick to prevent the spread of illness to others.
In terms of the minimum effectiveness and materials? An Experimental Study of Efficacy of Gauze Face Masks published in 1920 the researchers concluded that cloth masks had basic minimum requirements that had to be met in order for a mask to have a “restraining influence on the number of bacteria-laden droplets possible of inhalation”. Part of this involved a balance between the number of layers, thread count, and breathability. If the mask is too dense as a result of the layers and thread count then “breathing is difficult and leakage takes place around the edge of the mask”. That leakage of air is what they proposed caused the reductions in efficacy observed. Research such as this resulted in recommendations of a minimum of 300 thread count fabric still used today.
Cost Prohibitive / Unable to Obtain
We’ve talked about poverty before. This can impact obtaining supplies, time to make a mask, and many other life factors that are none of my business and we need to be understanding. Others are unable to sew or are unable to put a mask on for themselves (see “modifications” above).
Do Cloth Masks Really Help?
[Updated 14 July 2020]
Numerous papers have been published establishing the effectiveness of masks in the control of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. One paper in the Lancet is titled “The Rational Use Of Face Masks During The COVID-19 Pandemic”. This paper took the time to thoroughly analyze public health responses from various countries, the reasoning behind their responses, and how this impacted the spread of the virus. While it explains that stigma is likely to be the biggest barrier, there’s still sufficient evidence from countries that did adopt a universal mask wearing policy and slow the spread.
A paper published in the BMJ sought to do a systematic review of the effectiveness masks. While arguing the precautionary principle is a wise choice in regards to public health measures and does not require “perfect evidence” or a full systematic review prior to implementation.
In conclusion, in the face of a pandemic the search for perfect evidence may be the enemy of good policy. As with parachutes for jumping out of aeroplanes,38 it is time to act without waiting for randomised controlled trial evidence.39 A recently posted preprint of a systematic review came to the same conclusion.40 Masks are simple, cheap, and potentially effective. We believe that, worn both in the home (particularly by the person showing symptoms) and also outside the home in situations where meeting others is likely (for example, shopping, public transport), they could have a substantial impact on transmission with a relatively small impact on social and economic life.
In a letter to the editor published in Infectious Disease Modeling a group discussed disease modeling performed on data sets from New York and Washington states. What they found suggests that the adoption of wearing masks will decrease the number of deaths significantly and reduce transmission.
Hypothetical mask adoption scenarios, for Washington and New York state, suggest that immediate near universal (80%) adoption of moderately (50%) effective masks could prevent on the order of 17–45% of projected deaths over two months in New York, while decreasing the peak daily death rate by 34–58%, absent other changes in epidemic dynamics. Even very weak masks (20% effective) can still be useful if the underlying transmission rate is relatively low or decreasing: In Washington, where baseline transmission is much less intense, 80% adoption of such masks could reduce mortality by 24–65% (and peak deaths 15–69%), compared to 2–9% mortality reduction in New York (peak death reduction 9–18%)
We began asking this question a long time ago. In a 1920 study on gauze masks looking retrospectively at the data from the 1918 influenza pandemic regarding the infections contracted by healthcare workers, authorities’ primary criticism was that the weave of the fabric was too loose. Though the study still concluded that masks did not demonstrate to have a degree of efficacy that would warrant their compulsory application during an epidemic, they argued that masks should not be abandoned entirely. I’ll leave it in their words:
Studies made in the Department of Morbidity Statistics of the California State Board of Health did not show any influence of the mask on the spread of influenza in those cities where it was compulsorily applied, and the Board was, therefore, compelled to adopt a policy of mask encouragement, but not of mask compulsion. Masks were made compulsory only under certain circumstances of known contact with the disease and it was left to individual communities to decide whether or not the masks should be universally worn.
The reason for this apparent failure of the mask was a subject for speculation among epidemiologists, for it had long been the belief of many of us that droplet borne infections should be easily controlled in this manner. The failure of the mask was a source of disappointment, for the first experiment in San Francisco was watched with interest with the expectation that if it proved feasible to enforce the regulation the desired result would be achieved. The reverse proved true. The masks, contrary to expectation, were worn cheerfully and universally, and also, contrary to expectation of what should follow under such circumstances, no effect on the epidemic curve was to be seen. Something was plainly wrong with our hypotheses. We felt inclined to explain the failure of the mask by faults in its application rather than by any basic error in the theory of its use. Consequently, Bulletin No. 31* of the Board of Health brought out the fact that where it was sought to control influenza by compulsory wearing of masks certain obstacles developed. These were:
First, the large number of improperly made masks that were used.
Second, faulty wearing of masks, which included the use of masks that. were too small, the covering of only the nose or only the mouth, smoking while wearing, etc.
Third, wearing masks at improper times. When applied compulsorily masks were universally worn in public, on the streets, in automobiles, etc., where they were not needed, but where arrest would follow if not worn, and they were very generally laid aside when the wearer was no longer subject to observation by the police, such as in private offices and small gatherings of all kinds. This type of gathering with the attendant social intercourse between friends, and office associates seems to afford particular facility for the transfer of the virus. If, as seems probable, the virus is droplet-borne, this form of contact, where people are conversing with one another, would, of course, be much more dangerous than crowd association of strangers, even under the circumstances of gathering in churches and theatres. We were not satisfied, however, with this seemingly perfectly satisfactory explanation. We felt it to be imperative, if the mask were not to be permanently discredited, that more definite information be obtained concerning its uses and limitations. If, as we believed, the gauze mask is useful as a protection against certain infections, it would be unfortunate if its uncontrolled application in influenza should result in prejudicing critical and scientific minds against it.
A 2011 review of “Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses” found that …
Respiratory virus spread can be reduced by hygienic measures (such as handwashing), especially around younger children. Frequent handwashing can also reduce transmission from children to other household members. Implementing barriers to transmission, such as isolation, and hygienic measures (wearing masks, gloves and gowns) can be effective in containing respiratory virus epidemics or in hospital wards. The more expensive, irritating and uncomfortable N95 respirators might be superior to simple masks. It is unclear if adding virucidals or antiseptics to normal handwashing with soap is more effective. There is insufficient evidence to support screening at entry ports and social distancing as a method to reduce spread during epidemics.
…meaning that isolation, hygiene, and barriers like masks were effective.
On a lukewarm note, a 2013 study found that they were “better than nothing” against droplet transmission during an influenza pandemic.
Cloth masks resulted in significantly higher rates of infection than medical masks, and also performed worse than the control arm. The controls were HCWs who observed standard practice, which involved mask use in the majority, albeit with lower compliance than in the intervention arms. The control HCWs also used medical masks more often than cloth masks. When we analysed all mask-wearers including controls, the higher risk of cloth masks was seen for laboratory-confirmed respiratory viral infection.”
With such mixed reviews being published, why wouldn’t we be hesitant to recommend masks when they’re being advised as only a last resort? Here’s the thing. We’re there. We’re at the last resort.
When is a mask not a good idea?
Masks can lead to inhaling your own infectious droplets from a sinus infection and spread it to the rest of your airways.
Here’s an anecdote. I am having trouble finding papers to support this, but this is the current hypothesis my immunologist and I have as to how I got that month long pneumonia in March 2020.
I had a sinus infection and I was wearing a mask. Then, I aspirated droplets from my sinus infection leading to a lung infection. This lung infection eventually developed into a pneumonia. This is an instance of when a mask is not a good idea. Circumstances when you can aspirate your own droplets from a sinus infection or from an oral infection would be while exercising, crying, or dealing with temperature or humidity swings that would result in a runny nose. That’s it.
Other people who should not wear masks? The CDC recommends against masks for anyone with breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, children under the age of 2, and “Anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.”
What About Herd Immunity
I added this section in the update because I have heard arguments against mask wearing for the purpose of increasing herd immunity. Quanta Magazine wrote a great article explaining that herd immunity is complicated and how to read an R0 . For those that don’t want to read the article, I will explain it in a way I’ve used in the past for students.
Imagine you have a bouncing ball rolling around on a pool table and every time that ball hits another ball it changes that ball’s color. This change is not reversible. The number of balls that can interact and change color at a given time depends entirely on factors such as movement, density, and the total area of the pool table versus the size of the ball. Any change in those conditions is going to change the probability of interactions, and as the balls change color there are fewer available. That said, you can always add more balls, and some of them might have already changed color. You can force the balls to not go anywhere and severely reduce their interactions.
Because herd immunity’s effectiveness is dependent on the R0 (The estimated number of people being infected by an infected person / the number of balls interacting with the balls that have changed color) and that number will vary based on the conditions previously mentioned.
Herd immunity does not protect vulnerable populations effectively due to heterogeneity of R0 within a single population. Not all humans behave the same and this vastly changes how many people they can potentially infect. With necessary herd immunity estimates requiring a range of 40-60% of the United States population to have been infected to impact and reduce the spread, and an estimated death rate range of 4-6% at this time we can quickly consider what this means for a population of 328.2 million.
This means a total of 131.28 – 196.92 million Americans will need to contract COVID-19. If this happens, we can expect 5.25 – 11.82 million deaths in total by the time herd immunity is achieved unless there is vaccine intervention, assuming the death rate does not increase beyond 6% due to lack of access to medical care as ICUs hit capacity across the United States.
Wear a cloth mask. Assume good intent for everyone wearing a mask. They aren’t doing anything suspicious. Don’t call the police.
Masks work. Please wear them, but wear them smartly. They do not make up for poor hygiene practices.
Some people can’t afford the supplies to make cloth masks, or they need modifications for their unique needs, or they cannot make the mask themselves. There are resources for that.
Children’s masks need consideration based on your child’s needs.
Masks are not always a good idea. Inhaling your own droplets can lead to pneumonia not related to COVID-19.
Thank you for reading this. Without you I am shouting into an ether. If you enjoy and want me to write more of these, please share this or comment below with what you would like to see me write next.
I started writing this article on 8 April, 2020 and stopped because I needed a break from writing about coronavirus related topics.I will be continuing to update this post-publication. Last updated on 14 July, 2020.