How Well Do Masks Work?

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Many mixed messages have been spread about the efficacy of masks in preventing transmission of COVID-19. Nevertheless, there is good evidence that they help, as discussed in this video from It’s Okay to Be Smart. Much of the video shows schlieren imaging of a (healthy) individual engaging in regular activities – like talking, breathing, and coughing — with and without a cloth mask.

Now, it’s important to note that what you see in these images is airflow, not the droplets that can carry the virus. However, research has shown that these airflows play a significant role in transporting droplets. It follows that disrupting those airflows can disrupt transmission of diseases passed via droplet. This is one of the key reasons to wear a mask.

Notice how far jets and plumes of air fly from a maskless person’s mouth and nose. We cannot even observe how far momentum carries that air because the area visualized in this schlieren set-up is smaller than the full distance the air moves! But wearing a mask breaks up that flow structure. It reduces the air’s momentum, and it forces any air that does escape to move in smaller, less efficient structures. Even without considering any filtering effects or the fact that masks catch large droplets coming out of the wearer’s mouth, it’s clear that mask-wearing keeps others nearby safer. (Video and image credit: It’s Okay to Be Smart; references)

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