The following is written by a nonclinician.
Imagine that your castle is surrounded by enemies. A moat around the castle is filled with hungry crocodiles, but they won't catch all intruders. If you also surround the castle with a pit full of poisonous snakes, enemies are less likely to break through.
The protection from these two barriers is additive.
Likewise, masks plus inoculations are additive in their protection from the COVID virus. They are like two defenses around a castle.
Since neither vaccines nor masks are 100% effective, using both makes a great deal of sense and reduces the danger we will need to shut down the economy again.
It is important to remember that masks protect against COVID in two different ways, and both are significant.
The more obvious protection from a mask is for the person wearing it. Data indicates that a mask gives those who wear one some protection. If the person has been fully vaccinated and if that person is not immunocompromised, wearing a mask will probably not greatly increase his or her protection from infection. (But not all people who are immunocompromised are aware of that fact.)
The much bigger protection provided by wearing a mask is for the other people in the masked person's vicinity. Masks are much better at intercepting viruses expelled from the wearer's nose or mouth (coughing, speaking, singing) than they are at preventing viruses from other people from getting in.
Since the now prevalent delta variety of the virus can "break through" the vaccines, vaccinated people can come down with mild (usually) versions of COVID, sometimes not even realizing it. But it now turns out that their noses can harbor just as many viruses as are found in the unvaccinated, so they are a threat to the health of everyone around them.
If everyone — vaccinated or unvaccinated — wears a mask, this minimizes the threat of infection for everyone.
Contrary to the rhetoric "my body, my choice," a decision not to weak a mask, or not to get a shot, is not just a private decision. It is a private decision with vastly important public consequences.
We do not think people should be allowed to emit poisons into the air we all breathe and the water we all drink if they feel that it is a "personal" choice.
Government regulations limiting our freedom to make such a choice are surely legitimate and necessary in any heavily populated industrial society. And so are governmental mandates to wear masks and to get inoculated.
Such regulations would not be needed if everyone were public spirited and concerned with the welfare of their fellow human beings. As James Madison noted, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."
Although cost-benefit analysis before we act is a good idea, it does not always help us avoid acting irresponsibly. People will usually act responsibly if the costs of their actions are born mainly by themselves.
However if the benefits of an action accrue to the actor but its costs fall mainly on other people, the action may be terribly irresponsible. Economists call this an "externalized costs" problem.
Wearing a mask produces externalized benefits. I bear the costs — slight inconvenience — of wearing a mask, while the benefits are mainly to other people. But I in turn benefit greatly from the masks they are wearing. As I have put it poetically:
You don't need to a ask
me to put on a mask.
I am happy to wear it, you see.
It's the least I can do,
for my mask protects you,
and yours, in return, protects me.
Wearing a mask says "I care." Wearing one is no great trouble, and there is no sense in making a federal case out of requirements that we wear one. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court agrees.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. Read Professor Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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