Masks, COVID-19 and Pro Rep

photo of two N95 face masks

UPDATED: October 9 2020

Many scientists are recommending that the public wear face masks to fight coronavirus. Here’s the evidence, info on using and making masks, and the not-so-surprising connection to proportional representation of voters:


  • Canada’s performance
  • Science calling
  • Disinfecting and re-using N95 masks
  • Homemade masks
  • Learn more
  • Public policy

Canada’s performance:

Is Canada controlling COVID-19 adequately?

Canada has been doing much better, with the number of daily deaths from COVID-19 decreasing since the beginning of May 2020 to nearly zero since July.

Arguably the most reliable measure for international comparisons of success or failure in controlling COVID-19 after it gets started, is the number of days it takes for total COVID-19 deaths to double. By that measure, Canada did poorly compared to the world as a whole for many months, finally catching up to the world average only July 6 2020. As of September, Canada has the same number of total confirmed cases per million population as the world average (0.35%).

Of people diagnosed with COVID-19, the Canadian death rate is 7% and the world death rate 4% (September 8 2020). Of course, most cases go undiagnosed. Data from a study of Canadian blood donations released September 8th shows that at least 2 out of 3 cases, possibly many more, never receive a positive test result for COVID-19 in spite of being infected.

Science calling:

Scientists are increasingly calling for face mask wearing to beat coronavirus:

Three U.S. professors, July 31 2020:

Masks may lead to less severe symptoms by reducing the infection dose – “universal public masking during the COVID-19 pandemic should be one of the most important pillars of disease control”

Three scientists, June 16 2020:

COVID-19: “Aerosols can accumulate, remain infectious in indoor air for hours, and be easily inhaled deep into the lungs. For society to resume, measures designed to reduce aerosol transmission must be implemented, including universal masking…”

Four scientists, June 2020:

The first experimental-like evidence confirms that laws requiring face masks in public cripple the virus. Researchers compared regions of Germany with early law adoption, such as Jena, with regions of Germany adopting the law later:Graph showing adoption of law requiring face masks in public in Jena, Germany, resulted in stoppage of growth in COVID-19 cases.

June 16:

Doctors and scientists call for Alberta to make wearing a mask mandatory in public.

Five scientists, June 11:

A peer-reviewed study finds wearing of face masks in public is the most effective of all means to prevent COVID-19, and “The current mitigation measures, such as social distancing, quarantine, and isolation implemented in the United States, are insufficient by themselves in protecting the public.”

Lancet medical journal, June 1:

A review of 172 studies finds face masks, physical distancing, and eye protection reduce the risk of coronavirus infection. Though with low certainty, they estimated mask wearing reduced the chance of infection 85%.

British Medical Journal, BMJ Global Health, May 28:

Within households surgical facemasks were 79% effective  in preventing transmission of COVID-19.

Ten scientists from 8 countries (3 Canadians), May 22:

“there is high-quality, consistent evidence that many (but not all) cloth masks reduce droplet and aerosol transmission”

Seven scientists, May 1:

“our study shows that even face-masks of low efficacy (home-made cloths masks) will lead to a dramatic reduction of disease burden” “This study shows that the use of face-masks in public is always useful”

CBC, Apr. 25:

“wearing a mask appears to be astonishingly powerful, and the cost is nearly zero…And when we compare the level of evidence we have to something like washing hands, it’s vastly, vastly, vastly, vastly higher.”

Study of 169 countries, Apr. 23:

Weekly increase in deaths, without masks: 40%;  with masks: 3%

“These results support the universal wearing of masks by the public to suppress the spread of the coronavirus.”

Arizona State Univ. researchers, Apr. 21

“..face mask use should be as nearly universal (i.e., nation-wide) as possible and implemented without delay, even if most masks are homemade and of relatively low quality.”

Macleans magazine, Apr. 20:

The Czech Republic implemented mandatory mask measures and their fatality rates dropped sharply.

World Economic Forum, Apr. 7:

“Areas that have not effectively managed risk, such as New York and Milan, do not have mandated widespread wearing of masks…When masks are worn, they are extremely efficacious.”

World Health Organization (WHO) adviser Prof. David Heymann, Apr. 4:

“wearing a mask is equally effective or more effective than distancing.”

Canadian Medical Association Journal News, Apr. 3:

“..25% to 50% of people with COVID-19 do not have symptoms but may still spread the virus…masking of the public may be beneficial..”

University of Ottawa epidemiologist, Mar. 27:

“masking up Canadians is rational and promising to try.”

Lancet medical journal, Mar. 20:

“health authorities should optimise face mask distribution to..frontline health-care workers and..older adults..and people with underlying health conditions.”

Cochrane Library review of 67 scientific studies, 2011:

Comparing hand washing, social distancing, and face mask wearing, “Surgical masks or N95 respirators were the most consistent and comprehensive” to reduce the spread of respiratory viruses. (And the advisability of the public wearing ordinary cloth face masks was confirmed in a separate review by 19 scientists April 10, 2020.)

Disinfecting and re-using N95 masks:

Re-using the best (“N95”) masks:

N95 masks retained their filtering ability used daily for a month. (Some medical staff in the USA are reusing them for more than 2 weeks.) Do not wash N95 or commercially made surgical masks because this reduces their filtering efficiency. Note that a tight fit around the face is critical; N95 masks are designed to be disposable and if mishandled can easily lose their ability to form a tight fit, so it is recommended to do a User Seal Check each time a mask is donned. (Medical staff require a professional Fit Test, but medium size N95 masks of different brands fit 80 to 95% of users.)

Note there is still a great deal of excessive caution or ignorance in the advice given by some experts. For example, the Danish Health Authority says “Never reuse disposable face masks.” (October 5 2020, Such advice is based on fear that handling a mask might transfer virus from the outside of a mask, but there is no evidence this occurs in practice and “Never reuse disposable face masks” is highly impractical until manufacturing capacity is far greater. The science is clear that an undamaged disposable mask will be effective worn for more than a month. Any trace virus on the mask will be inactivated at room temperature within days, and can be avoided by not touching eyes, nose or mouth without carefully washing one’s hands first, which is general advice.

Disinfecting masks from COVID-19 virus:

This is a controversial and rapidly evolving subject. An N95 mask may be oven heated at 70° C (158° F) for 60 minutes (keeping it at least six inches from metal) to decontaminate it from the COVID-19 virus (and many other but not all microbes).

NOTE: One alternative method — leaving masks for 3 days in a warm (22 °C) room — worked in one test but gave only partial decontamination in an experiment with a high viral load. On surfaces, higher temperatures (and possibly high humidity of 80+% RH) are expected to shorten the life of the infectious virus.

Homemade masks:

Commercially made disposable masks are widely available in Canadian stores at low cost and the rationale for homemade masks is  reduced. Tests show that woven fabric masks usually do not combine breathability and filtration as effectively as the meltblown and spunbonded material used commercially.

As explained in the “Science calling” section above, homemade masks can make a significant difference in stopping COVID-19, because “my mask protects you” if I am infected but still asymptomatic. Research published October 2020 revealed two layers of t-shirt material is surprisingly effective for this purpose. Unlike N95, surgical, and disposable dust masks, homemade masks can be washed for re-use.

Click to read: How to make homemade masks.  Alternatively, in a pinch a somewhat less effective mask can be made in less than a minute with just a sock and a pair of scissors.

What material to use? Various teams have experimented but there is still no standard advice. It has been suggested to use cotton-based material woven densely enough that you cannot see bright light through it, but not so thick that you can’t still breathe through it with acceptable effort if you hold it tightly around your face.

Getting a tight fit is critical; pulling a section cut from pantyhose (nylons) over your head to stretch over your mask can improve the filtration by 15% to 50% by making a tighter fit at the edges of the mask.

Please note, there is a serious risk of doing more harm than good if a person fails to maintain social distancing and hand washing because they think they’re protected by a partially effective mask which they don’t even wear properly. Homemade masks usually filter out less than medical masks.

Children 2 and older, Apr. 8:

“According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children 2 years and older should wear ‘cloth face coverings’ when they are ‘in the community setting’ to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.”

“Dr. Deborah Gilboa said kids should wear masks whenever they leave the house.”

Learn more:

Filtration physics.

Where is COVID-19 caught?
Close contacts from overcrowding in workplaces and long term care homes are an obvious risk, but a study in China found almost all infection spread occurred in a home or public transportation. Just a few outbreaks were associated with restaurants (3%), entertainment venues (2%), or shopping (2%). The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority and many bus companies are giving passengers masks. Many countries now require masks when riding public transport.

Public policy:

Italy had a bad start but now has less coronavirus than much of Europe. To protect against the second wave of COVID-19 Italy is now making face masks mandatory outdoors as well as indoors throughout the country – everywhere except in private homes.

BC Ferries is requiring a “face covering”.

To fight coronavirus, almost all countries now have laws concerning wearing of face masks (October 9 2020).

Countries with Proportional Representation of voters have been more effective in controlling the novel coronavirus (Joel Selway, Washington Post, May 19, 2020); “health systems in proportional representation countries have a wider geographic distribution of hospitals and medical personnel, less waste and better coordination of the health system across the country.” That’s not a coincidence. Pro Rep attracts better candidates to a more civilized political system, including more women. Pro Rep has been shown to result in better governance generally, including health care, as documented elsewhere here at . (The specific connection of Pro Rep to controlling COVID-19 is controversial; an unrefereed model suggests no effect of Pro Rep or women leaders on COVID-19.)

Government Mismanagement:

The Trump and Trudeau governments have brushed aside the lack of face mask availability to the public by asking Americans and Canadians to save them for healthcare professionals. However, as the late Justice Archie Campbell wrote: “there is no longer any excuse for governments and hospitals to be caught off-guard and no longer any excuse for health workers not to have available the maximum level of protection through appropriate equipment and training.”

It’s also true that the ultimate way to protect our healthcare workers is to decrease the spread of COVID-19, and that may require the public to be issued masks. Ontario alone had 55 million medical masks that were “expired” and therefore unsuitable for medical personnel, and could have been used to provide every Canadian with one.

On May 9, 2020, the Canadian government announced 8 million masks they received proved slightly substandard to the N95 medical requirement, but instead of purchasing them for the public PM Trudeau announced “we will not be burdened with masks that do not fit our stringent requirements…we will not be paying…

Japan and S. Korea distributed face masks to every household long ago. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore provided masks for their health care workers as well as their citizens en masse.

Public approval of face masks has been rapidly increasing in Canada and the U.S. as thousands die from the new coronavirus. Epidemic modelling indicates it is important that mask wearing be adopted early in the epidemic rather than later: Universal Masking is Urgent in the COVID-19 Pandemic: SEIR and Agent Based Models, Empirical Validation, Policy Recommendations.  The public transit authority has begun giving out 1.5 million free masks to transit customers in Laval and Montreal.

OTHER STEPS: Since masks are important but do not give 100% reliable protection, what about other steps? Physical distancing is important because it reduces the chance of being exposed (the same as it reduces the chance you will smell someone else’s perfume). From hospital case studies there is absolute proof that the virus spreads through droplets in the air, but it is still not known whether the virus has ever spread through touching surfaces or eating food. There have been two outbreaks where fomite (surface) transmission was suspected but transmission through the air was also possible. Some other viruses do spread via surfaces and food, so to be cautious it is best to wash hands before touching the nose, mouth, eyes or food.

Stopping the virus is the best way to protect our frontline workers in healthcare and essential services.

Until COVID-19 is beat, there’s no doubt we should be increasingly vigilant with our hand washing and social distancing.

The experience of other countries shows we also need more people to use a third weapon, wearing a face mask when out in public.

Let’s do it together! Help spread the word!

#Masks4ALL #FlattenTheCurve #Covid-19