I know that mask-wearing appears to reduce my chances of becoming ill with the coronavirus. But if I do end up getting infected while wearing a mask, will that have any impact on how sick I become?
Dr. Prescott Prescribes
Masks slow the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. And while they can’t fully protect us against infection, there’s also mounting evidence that they can lessen the severity of illness if we do get infected.
Pre-World War II experiments with mice first showed that the chance of severe illness and death from a virus increased with the amount of virus the animals were exposed to. Subsequent studies confirmed that the same principles held true in humans: the more viral exposure, the sicker people became. (I should note that the researchers in those studies limited flu dosages to ensure no one got severely ill or died.)
Recent hamster experiments with SARS-CoV-2 found that surgical mask partitions had a similar effect. When animals did get sick with the virus, they were more likely to get mild disease.
The idea is simple: Masks cut the amount of virus inhaled and, as a result, the severity of the infection. Observations of the virus in human populations support these findings.
A seafood plant in Oregon gave employees masks. When a subsequent outbreak occurred there, you’d typically expect about 40 percent of those infected to remain asymptomatic.
Instead, 95 percent of those infected stayed symptom-free.
When coronavirus was detected on a cruise ship traveling from Argentina to Antarctica, masks were provided to the crew and passengers. More than 80 percent of those who later got infected stayed asymptomatic.
In countries where mask-wearing has long been a part of the culture — Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore — death rates have stayed extremely low, even when the number of overall cases has grown.
Scientists at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and around the world are still learning about the virus, doing experiments and gathering data every day. Still, as our body of knowledge has grown, one thing has held true: the case for masks just keeps getting stronger.