Model: Universal mask-wearing would do more to reduce infection than indefinite lockdowns would

One of the weirdest quirks of coronavirus politics is that the group that’s most adamantly opposed to continuing lockdowns is also the group that’s grouchiest about wearing masks. There’s a certain dopey consistency to both positions: Lockdowns are an intrusion on the liberty of business owners and consumers, mask mandates (whether public or private) are an intrusion on the liberty of the individual.

But refusing to take basic minimal precautions against infection is exactly the sort of thing that makes lockdown supporters wary of opening back up. If we can’t have ubiquitous testing, and we can’t have a bureaucracy to conduct contact tracing, the least we can do to raise the comfort level of Americans who are reluctant to risk their health by crowding into retail spaces is wear masks to protect each other.

In many cases I don’t think the libertarian argument against masks is even being made in good faith. What’s driving the opposition isn’t fear of “social control” or denialism about the threat from the disease but a certain whiny rejectionism about the new normal created by the pandemic. I don’t like this reality and I resent being inconvenienced in any way by it and I want it to end *right now.*

Let’s see if we can sweeten the pot for mask skeptics. Per Vanity Fair, a computer scientist at Berkeley built a simulator along with several other academics to test how the pandemic would be affected by greater or lesser degrees of mask-wearing by the population. You can read the results here. I’m not sold on all of the assumptions they used; for instance, they clearly believe that state-ordered lockdowns are more effective than general social distancing in meaningfully reducing contact between people, a proposition that’s been challenged. But here’s the eye-popping result of their model.

Doing nothing except casual social distancing produces a staggering death toll. An indefinite lockdown without mask-wearing cuts the death toll massively — but forget that, since indefinite lockdowns are infeasible. The most life-saving option by far turns out to be widespread mask-wearing along with basic social distancing after lockdowns are lifted. Precisely the scheme the U.S. could be headed for right now if people would stop screeching about social control and spend $8 at Etsy for a mask.

If you don’t like that speculative model, how about some hard data from the same study? Feel free to ignore the Chinese numbers here on grounds that the CCP can’t be trusted to report its data accurately. But do pay attention to South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore.

Still not convinced? Here’s some circumstantial evidence much closer to home. I would have bet good money that COVID-19 is much more prevalent among New York’s hospital workers than it is among the general population for the obvious reason that they’re in contact with infected people far more often. But I would have lost that bet.

Obviously we can’t attribute the lower rates of infection among hospital workers to face masks alone. Some of them are wearing complete personal protection gear, some are wearing masks plus other stuff short of a full moon suit. (E.g., face shields.) But to the extent masks provide some protection for the wearer against infection, not just protection for others from the wearer, they may be contributing here.

There’s a catch to the study, though, per Vanity Fair:

Next De Kai added another tweak, modeling a situation in which 80% of a given population wore a mask. Here, most of the dot-people stay blue, with a few going orange, red, and green. “This is the goal,” De Kai maintained. “For 80 or 90% of the population to be wearing masks.” Anything less, he added, doesn’t work as well. “If you get down to 30 or 40%, you get almost no [beneficial] effect at all.”

We need total or near-total buy-in to drive down the infection rate. Are we getting near-total buy-in? No, we are not.

The highest rate of mask-wearing for any state is New Jersey at 56 percent. Only 12 states are above the average of 43 percent. We need to literally double that average to drive down coronavirus transmission rates if the study is correct, but it wouldn’t be hard to do. It would make reopening much safer. Just ramp up mask production and discard the idea that somehow basic hygiene in an era of plague is for cucks.

This’ll help. If all we need to do to get a Trump/MAGA benediction for mask-wearing is feed the president’s narcissism by splashing his name on the product, I’m all-in. Trump masks for everyone:

Getting Trump to set an example by wearing a mask himself will be a taller order, unfortunately. Neither he nor any of the Republican lawmakers he met with yesterday for an hour put one on despite the fact that two White House staffers have tested positive this week. There’s good reason to believe that the virus is in the building. And yet.

I’ll leave you with this photo set of a well-known Republican populist and a newly minted Republican populist folk hero getting together yesterday in Dallas. You can stick it to The Man on lockdowns and practice plague prevention, it turns out.