I won't wear an n95 alone in my office
We have to give reasonable advice, set reasonable examples, and help our friends
Recently a professor was found to be wearing an n95, alone in his office, and tweeted a long justification for his choice. It got 24,000 likes! Let’s consider his argument, and why I disagree.
First, I want to say: some social media users teased him— I don’t support that, and won’t do that here. Instead, my goal is to explain why his choice does not make sense, and is not something you should adopt. I want to go further and argue that, while a personal choice, it is a bad one, and we should help counsel him against making it
Before we get to that— let’s understand his explanation.
He wears an n95 mask because it poses only minor burdens to him. Since he wears it 3 times before discarding, it costs just 25c per use. The door to his office is occasionally open (true for all of us), and aerosols linger. There is a (non zero) chance wearing a tight fitting n95 mask will prevent someone else from getting COVID19, and prevent the wearer (a fully vaccinated individual) from getting it as well.
Ergo, the professor concludes “So very low cost, and if it keeps a round of COVID out of my family, very large benefit…” and ”I could be a source at any point, and I would rather not infect my department.”
His argument relies on 2 things he believes: The cost is low/ negligible to him. The potential benefit is large (to him, his family and his department).
I wish to divide what follows into 3 parts:
I want to state some facts about COVID19 (if we can’t agree to these facts, then go read another Substack)
I want to present some analogous choices to test your intuition (do these scenarios make sense?)
I want to argue why I think this person’s thermostat is mis-calibrated.
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Part 1: The Facts.
At this point in the pandemic, I hope we can agree on these things.
All evidence suggests that 93-98% of all human beings will be infected with sars-cov-2 in the near future. We will all have breakthrough. Every day this is happening. These curves will keep going up (and to be honest, they are already higher). This is because the vaccine does not stop infection (effectiveness against symptomatic disease is near 0 with time), and because humans are social creatures who will eventually be close to others.
We are likely to be reinfected with this virus many times in our long lives— it will be an endemic, circulating virus.
Vaccination, weight and general health are the only modifiable variables (things we can do in our control) so we do better when we get sick. After that, nothing much you can do to your risk of bad outcome when you get COVID. You are just getting older.
COVID19 has affected the critical thinking and mental health of many people. Through direct viral effects (many casualties) as well as anxiety and paranoia that come from thinking about COVID19 to the exclusion of all else in life, and massive life disruptions (work, school, society, travel).
Part 2: Your intuition
Imagine if I invent a new mask that sinks 95% of exhaled CO2. I call it a c95! It captures Co2 and holds it in the mask, where it can be lowered into the ground— never to fill the air. Should you wear one?
Obviously climate change is a problem. Obviously it is driven by C02 emissions. Just like the Professor— you can’t control what others do— CO2 will still fill the air, but there is no reason you have to add to it. The mask is just 25c a use. Barely bothers you, and means less CO2.
Of course, nothing else is going to change. We will still have climate change. But it will be just slightly slower. (Similarly: everyone in your family and department will have breakthrough, but it may occur slightly later if the Professor masks up when alone). What would you say?
The professors argument is true for other winter respiratory viruses. Imagine a professor who did the EXACT same thing, but the year is 2015. I don’t want to get a cold, nor do I want to participate in chains of people who get colds. What would you say?
Imagine a parent who says, I don’t want my kids to get hurt. I won’t impose on them, but I will set an example. I will never run or jog outside. I will ONLY run on treadmills because people ONLY get hit by cars outside. No one was ever hurt running on a treadmill. So I will never run outside. It is just my choice! What would you say?
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Part 3 Why I Won’t Wear an N95 mask inside.
I hope this has paved the way for why I believe the person is wrong in their personal choice, and should be advised against it. For their own sake and for others!
In the universe of human interactions that could spread COVID19, wearing an n95 in your office has to, at best, make the most minuscule difference. Just like wearing a c95 to sink your CO2 won’t do anything that matters for climate change, your department and family and city will just get sick elsewhere. You are changing the timing such a trivial amount. Just like the climate analogy, it is delusional to think your one Co2 makes much difference.
Anxiety has clouded your perception of both the upsides and downsides of n95 masking. The mask is flatly uncomfortable—as anyone who wears it properly will attest— you are kidding yourself it is comfortable. Just like the person wearing one in 2015— others may rightly point out that the mask is taking a toll on interpersonal relationships in the office. A colleague might advise the person in 2015, “perhaps a vacation or something else to relax is in order to reassess.”
Your actions DO have a negative consequences to others. Just like running only on treadmills sets a bizarre example that the roads a rampantly unsafe, leading to a culture of irrational safety-ism. You set a bizarre example to others that breathing air alone in your office is too risky. It simply is not. You have already done everything you can (vaccination— lose weight—- stay fit— sleep well) to meet the virus on the best terms. Now is time to get back to life. Set a good example for others, by relaxing!
Of course, the right way to deal with the colleague who makes an irrational, personal choice is not to mock them. That will lead them to double down. The right way is to do what you would do for the friend who refuses to run outside. You would kindly offer to run beside them on a safe path. Just to break the tension. Show them it is ok. There is no shame in feeling the rays of the sun on your (full) face, and they might even enjoy it. The last few years were not easy— no one is saying they were— but you will be better off returning to normal life. Let me help you, and show you how.
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