Masks make a return
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Masks make a return

Nov 16, 2023

It's déjà vu.

The governor of New York and health officials urging people to wear masks due to health issues. This due to an Air Quality Advisory that remains in effect due to smoke from wildfires in Canada continuing to move through the state.

The words echo calls for masks during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So how are people reacting to the new recommendations that were met with mixed reactions, to say the least, a few years ago?

Jarrett Rose, a sociologist and lecturer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), discussed why masks became such a point of contention during the pandemic and the impact that is likely having now amid new mask-wearing recommendations.

"They feel disenfranchised by the people who are supposed to be serving them," Rose said.

For months, people around the world were told masks were one of the most useful tools to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. There is science to support that claim, but other research shows a mask's efficacy makes it not worth wearing one.

"A lot of the people are able to pick and choose what particular data sets that they find attractive to serve their own political and cultural and identity ideologies," Rose explained.

And with that came division.

Rose believes discourse during the pandemic will have lasting impacts on mask-wearing, but not on situations like what we’re experiencing now with wildfire smoke blanketing a large portion of the state.

"There is less likely to be political division over this particular discourse, that particular news media, government officials and scientist are suggesting that people wear masks," Rose said.

And that's perhaps because we can physically see it.

"Everyone noticed it, right?" acting state Health Commissioner Dr. James McDonald said. "Unlike the pandemic, you can really see the impact. So I think that's why people are saying if I’m going outside, I’m wearing a mask."

Experts meanwhile say wildfire smoke is made up of various components, including gases like carbon monoxide.

"But the primary component are particles," said Helen Zha, assistant professor of chemical engineering at RPI.

Particles that can be blocked my certain face coverings.

"For an N95 mask, it's rated to block at least 95% of those particles. But for things like surgical masks and face masks, they will still block larger particles," Zha said.

Zha said old surgical and cloth masks from the pandemic can still be effective if they are cleaned.

The N-95 masks are a little bit more sensitive to humidity, so she recommends following the manufacturers guidelines. But she said they are probably better than nothing.