February 17, 2023

This new meta-analysis of the effectiveness of mask-wearing was more interesting than I expected

There is an updated meta-analysis of how respiratory illnesses spread and the effectiveness of prevention techniques such as hand-washing and mask-wearing. I didn't expect to be thinking much about the effectiveness of mask-wearing or not anymore, but I was reading a recent newsletter from The Atlantic which featured an interview with the author of an article breaking down the meta-analysis paper. (Subscription probably required for The Atlantic.)

I did spend what felt like a lot of time before the Fall semester began in 2022 trying to figure out what sort of language I was going to put in my syllabus regarding masks.  What I finally came up with was this simple policy: "Masks are optional, but respect for others is not. Some people may choose to wear a mask some or all of the time, and some people may choose never to wear a mask. Either choice at any time should be respected." That language seemed to work well, and I've been reasonably happy with it. 

I had a more difficult time figuring out if I should be wearing a mask or not. On the one hand, I am reasonably healthy and not at a high risk for hospitalization with a COVID infection.  On the other hand, long COVID is a real thing and as a scientist I should probably be practicing what the science says is best policy. What I finally came to realize was that the worst part of wearing a mask while teaching was that it made it difficult (in some cases almost impossible) to build relationships with students in my classes. So, I'm taking a calculated risk that the benefit of more easily building trust and rapport with students in my classes outweighs the risk of getting (and spreading) COVID.

What I found fascinating about the new meta-analysis was the conclusion that it was difficult (or impossible) to make any population-level conclusions about the effectiveness of wearing masks.  That doesn't negate the science which says on an individual level that masks provide reasonable protection for the wearer. I'm hoping that what I read is not just a confirmation of a prior belief - I'm trying very hard to be open minded and not just falling for a confirmation bias trap.  But still, it does seem a lot more in-line with what I have already been doing regarding masks - not masking when building relationships is important and masking in crowded/not-well-ventilated spaces where I'm not trying to build rapport with anyone I interact with.

I also think this sort of balance of when to mask or not helps remind me that other people can choose to wear masks for individual reasons. None of those reasons need to be known to me or anyone else, really. And whether or not the individual masking has a measurable population-level effect doesn't really matter, I suppose. But I also figure it can't make the spread worse, right?

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