Face Masks Could Reduce Severity of COVID-19, Scientist Says

While most people wear face masks to block coronavirus, new research points to a potential benefit: making you less sick, should you catch it

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By now you've heard about how masks can help reduce the spread of COVID-19, but a new theory gaining traction among some doctors says masks can also help reduce the severity of the illness, should you be wearing a face covering when the virus sneaks through.

“Cloth masks, surgical masks -- they don’t block all the viral particles,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist and professor at UC San Francisco.

The imperfections of these masks could actually be working work in society’s favor, according to Gandhi, by reducing the viral inoculum -- or dose -- someone takes in. leading to milder and asymptomatic cases.

"This theory would state that even if it does slip in through your mask, you're less likely to get ill," Gandhi said.

The connection between the amount of virus someone takes in and the severity of an illness the person experiences as a result is something Gandhi was studying well before COVID-19 surfaced.

“This is true of respiratory viruses, gastrointestinal viruses -- eating a ‘bowl of norovirus,’ you’re going to get more sick if you have it ‘sprinkled on your salad’” Gandhi said.

Gandhi's theory as it pertains to COVID-19, just published in the New England Journal of Medicine, goes even further, suggesting repeated exposure in small amounts could build up immune systems through asymptomatic or mild infections.

"The problem is, we cannot take people, randomize them and spray virus at them -- it's totally unethical," said Gandhi, referring to the challenges of proving the theory through direct-controlled experiments.

Ghandi said observational evidence is pouring in, with examples of outbreaks on cruise ships and at meatpacking plants where there were many people wearing masks and also a high percentage of asymptomatic cases.

The theory could also help explain why mortality rates have gone down in parts of the country and world where wearing a mask is mandatory.

"And the observational evidence is also in animal models, for example: There was a ferret model, there was a hamster model, where the more virus you gave them of COVID-19, the more sick they got," Gandhi said.

As government restrictions look at reducing the number of coronavirus cases, a reduction in the severity of cases would also help get society back on its feet. It’s quite possible that masks could help on both fronts, if Ghandi's theory turns out to be correct.

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