The message in the cold that I caught

I believe that there’s a lesson about masks — and what they’re really good at in today’s world — in the bad cold I caught.

I have a cold, a nasty, snuffly, sore-throat, stuffy-nose, I-feel-sick kind of cold. The same kind of cold that I’ve probably had 200 times before over the course of my life. When my nose isn’t stopped up, my sense of smell is perfect; my blood oxygenation is a marvel of good health; and I’m not running a temperature, so I’m not worried that this is covert COVID. It’s just a cold.

What I find interesting is the fact that I caught a cold in the first place. After all, for the past year, I’ve been practicing good virus hygiene: I work from home so I limit my interactions with other people and, when I go out, I wear an N95 mask (which I bought in a moment of prescience last February). I also keep my hands to myself and disinfect them when I return to the house or the car, always making sure to keep my hands away from my face until I’ve disinfected them.

So how in the world did I catch a cold which, last I heard, is a virus? I have two theories:

Theory Number One: Even an N95 mask will not block viruses or, at least, it won’t block all the particles that come my way. As many have pointed out, when people who work with drywall or other particulate matter take off their N95 masks at the end of the day, their faces under the mask are still covered with fine particulate matter. The mask blocks a lot but not all of the particulates. So, maybe that’s how I got this cold and could be how I’ll still manage to catch COVID, assuming I don’t decide to get a vaccine (and that’s assuming vaccine supplies arrive in my community, which they haven’t yet).

Theory Number Two: The N95 mask gave me the cold. This is my preferred theory.

Masks are meant to be used only once. The reason for that is cross-contamination.

Tear your mind away from the mask for a minute and think in terms of surgical gloves. You’re preparing chicken for dinner and you hate to touch the germy meat (uncooked, chicken is the most germ-laden meat), so you put on some nice surgical-style rubber gloves. When you’re done prepping the chicken, you don’t take your gloves off. Instead, you keep them on as you make the salad, prepare the potatoes, take the chicken out of the oven, and plate the food. After that, you carelessly strip off your gloves and leave them lying by the sink. You pick them up again after dinner, put them on, and use them to wash and dry the dishes.

The next day, you and everyone else in the family is horrifically ill with food poisoning. Should anyone be surprised? All that the gloves did was keep that E. coli away from your hands. In all other ways, they were the perfect vector for spreading the E. coli from the raw chicken to every other raw surface in the kitchen or on your food. The gloves were theater, nothing more.

That is exactly the case with the masks people wear. Ideally, we should all be going through N95 masks at a ferocious rate, several times a day if we’re not home. The way it should work is that, in the car, you disinfect your hands. Then, you put on a brand new N95 mask. You go into the grocery store and do all your shopping. When you get near your car, you strip the mask off and throw it away. You then disinfect your hands before touching anything (e.g., your steering wheel, gear shift, face, etc.). And you do this every time you put on and take off that mask over the course of the day. That’s the only way to prevent cross-contamination.

Of course, that’s not what anyone does. We all have our one mask. We carry it around in our car, purse, or backpack. We put it on and take it off constantly. When we’re with other people, they’ve done the same with their masks. In addition, many people have poorly fitting masks or they feel claustrophobic, so the mask repeatedly ends up below their nose, and then they keep pulling it up over and over.

The cross-contamination is non-stop and renders the masks completely useless — except, perhaps, to contain the big, gloppy droplets when someone with a cold, flu, or allergy sneezes or coughs, and even then that person handles the mask over and over after the fact. Those gloppy particulates are why, if you have a cold, it’s probably polite for you to wear a mask, as the Japanese and South Koreans have done for years.

I discovered the secret of preventing colds a long time ago: Whenever I return to the car, I disinfect my hands. Long before disinfectant mania, I had pump bottles of disinfectant in my car and I used it religiously. That’s because I figured out that the three big cold vectors in my life were shopping cart handles, door handles, and credit card readers (along with those icky pens). If I kept my hands away from my face until I reached my car, and disinfected before I touched anything, I stayed healthy.

Now, though, because of the whole mask thing, despite my hand disinfecting ritual, I’ve still got that mask collecting bacteria and viruses, and following me wherever I go,  It’s a snare and a delusion, as it is for everyone else. Perhaps next time I go to Costco, I’ll buy that big box of generic masks so I can end the cross-contamination game — except, of course, I know that those masks do nothing to stop the free flow of viruses, not to mention the fact that they’ve become a major source of pollution.

In my humble opinion, masks are not the solution; they are one of the problems.