Bill Matson in his opinion piece Tuesday asked for the medical community to comment. As one who has taught medical students for years, I have had to stay current on the latest research. Mr. Matson admits his biology is a bit dated, and a lot of new information has been discovered, especially in this century.
The term “germ” is used by nonmedical people and usually implies something that can make you or other people sick. Most “germs” are viruses, like the one that causes COVID-19, but many are bacteria.
As pointed out, there are many bacteria in our mouth, nose, gut and even on our skin. These do not make us sick. They are good bacteria. We call this the microbiome and without it, we would not be healthy. If you have a tooth abscess, or are a diabetic with high blood sugars most of the time, the balance of good and bad bacteria in your mouth could be off, but for most of us, the bacteria in our mouths are not harmful to us. For those of us who eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, the microbiome in our mouth and nose is very healthy.
These bacteria are good in our own mouth and nose, but you would not want the chef to lick the spoon before serving you. In surgery we wear masks over our mouth and nose so that our bacteria will not get in the patient’s insides. I have needed to wear a mask for up to ten hours in complex cases. The mask does not in any way inhibit my breathing and the bacteria from my mouth and nose that cover the inside of the mask are of no harm to me. If I have several cases, I may untie the top part of the mask to eat or drink, then tie the mask back up. No harm to me and it still keeps my bacteria and viruses from contaminating the patient.
Surgical masks are comfortable because they are easy to breathe through, have four ties that are easy to adjust and a plastic shield to keep my glasses from fogging up. They block more than 99% of droplets containing bacteria or viruses from getting past the mask, even after hours of wear. The surgical mask also prevents 70% of bacteria and viruses from the patient getting into my mouth and nose.
An N-95 mask, such as worn in the ER, blocks nearly 100% of droplets spreading to the patient, but more importantly, block 95% of virus particles getting to the wearer. A cloth mask made of the wrong material might obstruct breathing. Most handmade cloth masks will stop most droplets with viruses from going more than a few inches beyond the wearer. Cloth masks will stop 20-70% of droplets from reaching the wearer, depending on what material is used.
What is important is that it stops virus loaded droplets from spreading to others. Wearing a mask gives you a little protection, but is primarily to protect others, just as our surgical mask is to protect the patient.
Indoors the potential to spread the virus is huge, but outdoors it is possible too. We know that droplets from coughing or even talking can contain millions of viruses and spread at least 6 feet in normal conversation. This is also true when breathing hard outdoors. Aerosols from normal breathing also contain the virus. These can stay in the air for a longer time.
Governor Kate Brown has asked us to all wear masks indoors and if unable to maintain a six foot distance outdoors. She announces these regulations, but they are developed by a group of scientists from medical schools and public health departments in five states, including the Univ of Wash which has some of the top virologists in the world.
You may safely wear a mask all day. It won’t make you sick. A mask that has elastic bands can irritate the nose and some irritate the ears, but your own bacteria in the mask won’t hurt you. After a few days it might smell, so washing a cloth mask is good.
A mask must fit the wearer and be snug around the nose. Not covering the nose, or having it loose at the nose, is the same as not wearing a mask at all.
If all of us wore a mask all the time, except in our own home, unless there is someone there who tests positive, we could stop 95% of the spread of COVID and the new cases would drop quickly making it safer for schools and businesses to operate. If we could bring the new case load down to zero, we could even open up theaters for Christmas concerts and the Nutcracker. That means wearing masks when talking to friends over the fence, or in get-togethers in our own backyard. If we all take this seriously, we can beat this.
— Dr. Ralph Eccles is an endocrinologist in Klamath Falls. He has been practicing medicine for more than 45 years.