There appear to be two distinct mindsets when it comes to dealing with the coronavirus. There are those people who are wearing face masks and those people who aren’t wearing face masks. It has almost become a political statement for some. We are not here to make any moral judgements, but we wonder why anyone would laugh or ridicule those wearing face masks. This reader of our syndicated newspaper column was surprised that his pharmacy was not more supportive.
Wearing Face Masks While Shopping
Q. Last weekend my wife and I visited our nearest pharmacy to pick up some prescribed medicine. To be prudent, we wore masks and gloves to the drive-up window. We have been dutifully wearing them in other stores we visit.
Not only were none of the pharmacy employees wearing masks, but they were not wearing gloves, either. In fact, they crowded around the store window to look at us and laugh. We must have looked funny if no one was wearing masks but us.
Since our pharmacy actually prepares pills for elderly people like ourselves, shouldn’t they be wearing masks and gloves to protect us from any virus, most notably COVID-19?
A. Policies on masks and gloves vary a lot from state to state and from store to store. Nevertheless, the virus that causes COVID-19 is highly transmissible.
We think that pharmacies should be providing their employees with gloves and masks to protect them and their customers. At the same time, customers should also be using these tools to protect the people serving them as well as others they may encounter.
How Do People Catch the Coronavirus?
There is growing evidence to support the idea that people can catch COVID-19 just by breathing in viral particles. An article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), May 13, 2020 suggests that talking can spread the coronavirus.
The authors state that:
“Speech droplets generated by asymptomatic carriers of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) are increasingly considered to be a likely mode of disease transmission. Highly sensitive laser light scattering observations have revealed that loud speech can emit thousands of oral fluid droplets per second…These observations confirm that there is a substantial probability that normal speaking causes airborne virus transmission in confined environments.”
The investigators used a green laser light to track tiny droplets while a volunteer repeated the phrase “stay healthy” for 25 seconds. The results were amazing. In one second, 2,600 tiny droplets could be tracked coming out of the volunteer’s mouth. The louder the voice the greater the volume of droplets.
The scientists describe what happens once the droplets leave the mouth:
“Therefore, in an environment of stagnant air, droplet nuclei generated by speaking will persist as a slowly descending cloud emanating from the speaker’s mouth, with the rate of descent determined by the diameter of the dehydrated speech droplet nuclei.”
What are the implications of viral particles being transmitted by talking? The article notes that:
“At an average viral load of 7 × 106 per milliliter, we estimate that 1 min of loud speaking generates at least 1,000 virion [infectious virus particle]-containing droplet nuclei that remain airborne for more than 8 min. These therefore could be inhaled by others and, according to IAH [independent action hypothesis], trigger a new SARS-CoV-2 infection.”
The authors leave us with an ominous conclusion:
“Our laser light scattering method not only provides real-time visual evidence for speech droplet emission, but also assesses their airborne lifetime. This direct visualization demonstrates how normal speech generates airborne droplets that can remain suspended for tens of minutes or longer and are eminently capable of transmitting disease in confined spaces.”
The People’s Pharmacy Perspective:
If you read that last sentence carefully you will realize that a person with no symptoms of COVID-19 can still spread invisible infectious viral particles in the air that can “remain suspended for tens of minutes or longer.”
Why should people be wearing face masks? Imagine this scenario. You get in line at a checkout counter in a pharmacy or grocery store.
There are two couples in front of you. Everyone is staying about six feet apart. The couples are carrying on conversations. They are not wearing face masks.
At the pharmacy counter the technician asks you for your birthday and what you are picking up. She asks you to sign the electronic monitor and slide your credit card into the chip reader. She is not wearing a face covering.
If you are at the grocery store you would wait while the person scans in your purchases. It could take several minutes. The person might ask for your customer loyalty card number. You might also be asked whether you want paper or plastic if you didn’t bring your own shopping bag. The bagger is probably not wearing a face mask.
All these conversations, either in the pharmacy or the supermarket, could create clouds containing thousands of virus-containing microscopic droplets that you will not see. But you will be breathing them. If people were wearing face masks they could reduce the risk of inhaling lots of virions.
Will wearing face masks protect everyone perfectly? Of course not! N95 masks would be desirable, but they still remain hard to come by. That’s because they need to go to first responders and other health care workers first.
We find it sad, though, that after months we still do not have enough N95 masks for the public. You can learn more about face coverings and the scandal surrounding N95 mask production at this link:
Should You Wear A Face Mask Every Time You Go Out?
Have you been out lately? If so, you have probably noticed that some people are being careful. But many others do not wear a face mask. How risky is that?
What We Don’t Know
There are still many unanswered questions about how long the coronavirus can persist on surfaces such as packages, paper bags or plastic bottles. How far can those small droplets travel and how long will they stay suspended in air?
Until we have a lot more information, it makes sense to be prudent. That’s especially true as people start shopping, going to restaurants and returning to work. People should be wearing face masks and not making fun of those who are trying to stay safe.
What Do You Think?
Are you confidant that you do not need a face mask when going out in public or are you wearing a face mask regularly? Please share your perspective in the comment section below.
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