Can Face Masks Help You Gain Immunity To Covid-19 Coronavirus?

So you’ve probably heard that you are supposed to wear a face mask to protect other people from you. That a face covering is a “coughy” filter, as well as a sneezy, talky, singy, panty, and breathy filter. That it’s basically face underwear. That it can block the potential Covid-19 coronavirus-laden stuff coming out of your nose and mouth. That you should consider #Maskingforafriend, as the Pandemic Action Network hashtag goes.

But is there anything in it for you, you know besides all that good for humanity, we’re all in it together stuff? Could wearing an ordinary face mask actually protect you as well, even if it’s not an N95 mask or something else proven to filter out virus particles? Well, a Perspective piece in the New England Journal of Medicine has offered a possible benefit or two for you.

Yes, in this piece, Monica Gandhi, M.D., M.P.H., and George W. Rutherford, M.D. from the University of California, San Francisco, wrote that “masks can filter out some virus-containing droplets (with filtering capacity determined by mask type), masking might reduce the inoculum that an exposed person inhales.” The inoculum is the amount of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV2) that happens to get into your body. Since your risk of getting infected may depend on the amount of virus that you get exposed to, you can see how a face covering could reduce your risk of infection.

But there’s possibly something else. Gandhi and Rutherford postulate that an ordinary face mask could actually work a bit like a vaccine and give you immunity against the Covid-19 coronavirus. A vaccine? How? Are you supposed to inject the mask into your arm? No, and please don’t do that. The thought is that a mask could help you gain immunity through “variolation.”

Vario what? Variation? Very important nation? Rhythm nation? Constipation? No, variolation. A National Library of Medicine (NLM) website describes how variolation was used in Asia years ago to try to immunize people against smallpox. This involved taking dried smallpox scabs from people who had smallpox and then blowing them up your nose. Besides the wonderful feeling of scabs going up your nose, what’s this supposed to do? The scabs could have some amount of the virus but not as much as a person actively shedding the virus. A smaller amount of the virus was supposed to result in a milder form of the disease that you could better survive. Survival then could mean immunity to smallpox.

This TED-Ed video described how the use of variolation eventually led to development of the smallpox vacine:

As you can see, variolation is not exactly the same as vaccination, even though they kind of rhyme. Variolation is exposure to the real live virus whereas vaccination tend to use either weakened or inactivated forms of virus,

So the thinking here is that an ordinary face covering could do the variolation thing for the Covid-19 coronavirus. The face mask would allow a smaller dose of the virus to get up your nose or into your mouth. The smaller dose may not be enough virus to give you a more severe infection. Surviving a milder infection could then mean immunity to the Covid-19 coronavirus. Perhaps, possibly, maybe.

So what evidence did Gandhi and Rutherford offer for this possibility? They brought up examples of SARS-CoV2 outbreaks that have occurred in settings where a large percentage of people were wearing face masks and pointed out that a much higher percentage of the SARS-CoV2 infections ended up being asymptomatic or mild. They also indicated that “countries that have adopted population-wide masking have fared better in terms of rates of severe Covid-related illnesses and death, which, in environments with limited testing, suggests a shift from symptomatic to asymptomatic infections.”

Of course, such observations can only suggest associations and correlations but really don’t serve as evidence of cause-and-effect. While the “variolation” theory for face masks is intriguing, the current evidence deserves a “C,” as in wait and see. Gandhi and Rutherford did admit that more studies are needed before firmer conclusions can be drawn.

In the meantime, there are still other good reasons to wear face coverings. Protecting others from you should be a good reason, assuming that you aren’t a vile person who hates everyone else. You could get some protection from face masks in the way that wearing underwear in a snow storm is still better than wearing nothing at all. Then there are side benefits such as:

And:

So continue to mask up when you might be closer to others, especially if you may be indoors together or within one Denzel of each other. (Denzel Washington is about six feet tall.) Some may be trying to convince you that it’s not good to wear face masks because they can cause carbon dioxide to build-up in your body (not true), decrease your immunity (also, not true), or make you smell your own burps (OK, that’s true). But in the end the benefits of wearing a face mask should outweigh the inconveniences.

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