Can the positive experience of Hong Kong with clean disposable paper masks translate to Americans using filthy reusable face rags?

I was an early believer that Americans could mask up and #LeaveHomeSaveLives. This belief was substantially based on the positive experience that Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and China have had with keeping various viruses under control. Beginning in May, with coronaplague well past peak in the U.S., a lot of governors began to share my enthusiasm for masks. The Massachusetts face rag order went into effect on May 6.

(peak was April 8; Professor of Epidemiology Donald J. Trump said the plague would be on the decline by Easter; Easter was April 12:

data from the IMHE prophecy site.)

However, since the disposable paper masks that are favored by health care workers and Asian consumers aren’t readily available, Americans are primarily using filthy cotton face rags that they wash periodically and touch all of the time (retrieving from pocket or cupholder, even if not when on face). Facebook post from a humanities professor friend:

After sewing my own three ply face masks, and buying a few not so great ones locally, I just got a pack of masks from a T-shirt company in San Francisco that actually seem quite good. They are three ply (Correction: just realized they are four ply, even better), with two lightweight inner cotton layers, and a heavier (doubled) cotton/poly blend outer fabric, and are big enough to cover the whole face. They also tie on, so feel more secure than having elastic over the ears, and also have a way to easily insert filters too. There’s lots of people selling masks, but these are the best I’ve found so far, so figured I’d pass it along.

Even Shutterfly is selling cloth masks, despite there being no photo customization option:

WHO says that masks work only if the wearers have ready access to the very things that Americans don’t have access to: sinks for handwashing and/or hand sanitizer. This is easy in the Shanghai Metro. Use any station’s clean restroom. But how can it be done in New York City or Boston, the plague centers of the U.S., especially if most places that actually have public restrooms are now closed?

Three questions, then:

  1. Do we think that the governors’ orders to “rag up” will affect coronaplague transmission?
  2. If “yes”, will transmission be reduced or increased by these saliva-soaked occasionally washed rags?
  3. Will there be any way to figure out whether our guess was correct? What data can we look at in June, for example, to figure out if the Massachusetts May 6 “rag up” order had any effect?


  • Danish professor of microbiology explains why we are stupid (ordinary folks will incubate the virus in their warm moist face rag, then touch it, then leave virus on surfaces that others will touch)
  • “I Wear My Face Mask in the Car” (make sure to watch at 2:25 when Bill Gates comes in)
  • My favorite question, from a latter-day female-identifying Socrates… What I don’t get: If masks work, why aren’t we back at work? If masks don’t work, why are we being asked to wear them?

17 thoughts on “Can the positive experience of Hong Kong with clean disposable paper masks translate to Americans using filthy reusable face rags?

  1. Isn’t the Asian mask wearing about air pollution not sneaky viruses that swim through the air like sky sperm?

    • At least in Japan it’s definitely about not getting sick and/or not getting other people sick. I think the air pollution issue is probably a bigger deal in China though.

  2. I think any air filtration beats no filtration. Based on recent photos from Asia, the Asians as a whole seem to agree with me. Taiwan has done an admirable job of beating back this virus, and this is part of their strategy.

    For those who would like to order some protection, KN95 face masks in stock.

    Adorama is very reliable and I’ve received mine, already.

    Note: the ear loops are a bit tight and these are NOT medical grade. Still, best I could find at present.

  3. The masks are a “best we can do” idea to try and limit the spread through aerosolized particles. They seem to work very well in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan where the population is homogeneous, careful, compliant with the orders, they have plenty of masks, lots of mask production capacity, and people who are willing to submit to invasive tracking and testing.

    Here in the United States, I think they have a shot at reducing the viral load that people are exposed to by coughs and talking and so forth, but only if you’re fastidious, have a supply of good, clean masks and take care of them like they’re cherished personal items. Then yes, it will reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus. That’s basically what people in hospitals are doing – albeit with better masks – and none of them are talking about giving them up. But you can’t just wear the mask, you have to follow all the other guidelines too, as you point out. It’s almost impossible in some places.

    If the numbers continue to drop, the mask faithful will say: “See, it’s working, you morons!” If they spike, they’ll say: “You morons are infecting us!” The unmasked will shout back: “How do you know you didn’t do it to yourself, ragface?” while waving a Don’t Tread on Me flag.

    Aside: those folks in San Francisco are going to make a small fortune.

    I think a lot of people will give it a try but the overall compliance and effectiveness will not be sufficient to make a huge dent in the numbers. It’s going to be a big source of social strife between the fastidious maskers and the naked defiants. As the heat gets hot and the nerves wear thin, we’re going to see more anger and yelling and fighting.

    The governors in the hard-hit states have all pledged that if the numbers go the wrong way, they’ll ratchet up all the restrictions again. That’s a promise they’re going to keep. They’ll issue more fines and citations. In a month we’re going to have armies of contact tracers and enforced quarantines. We’re going to try to identify outbreak hotspots and crack down on them. I can’t see any of the authorities backing down or rescinding their mask orders, so people are going to have to do the best they can.

    As you can tell I’m all over the place with it. There are too many unknowns. We still really don’t have adequate data. The idealized models and “mind blowing videos” show they can make a difference if you put the sliders in the right places and run the simulations. In controlled environments, masks will help. Businesses will do it because they have to. The rest of America I live in is difficult to control.

    • Sweden, deaths per 100k inhabitants: 37.1.
      Comparable countries: Denmark: 9.5, Finland 5.4, Norway 4.3. “America First”: 27.1 deaths per 100k inhabitants.

    • Philip – have a vague recollection that some time ago (might have been before the Vikings were the favorite anti-viral tribe), there was some brief discussion about the hardy Russians. Haven’t been followed up in the blog since – any updates? Also saw a nice comparison between Sweden and Switzerland recently but unfortunately (for this blog) it was in German.

    • Alex: Sweden has less than half the death rate so far compared to Massachusetts. Though they are quick to point out that this is a marathon, not a spring. So the right comparison point is April 2021. will keep you up to date.

      LinePilot: the virus is ripping through Russia just like the Swedish epidemiologists said that it would! That’s a big part of (don’t congratulate yourself if you can keep the virus out for a few months because eventually it will get in and do whatever it was going to do) At least by official deaths so far (in the WHO reports), Russia is far less plagued than Massachusetts or New York.

  4. From a “Not Latter Day Female Identifying” philosopher: If seatbelts work why do we have air bags? If seat belts don’t work why do we have to wear them?

  5. We have airbags to increase the cost of cars and to make it harder for start up car companies to emerge. Why can’t I buy a new car without airbags and ABS when I can ride a moped on the same roads? Safety lolz.

  6. “This belief was substantially based on the positive experience that Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and China have had with keeping various viruses under control.”
    People in Hong Kong and Taiwan were greatly affected by the SARS in 2003. When schools resumed in 2003, teachers checked whether their students were wearing masks properly, and students were required to wash hands when entering and exiting schools. Imagine that there is a whole generation who know how to protect themselves from virus. This makes a huge difference.
    Also, they don’t believe the WHO bullshit talk at the very beginning, because they know the mainland China (PRC) is controlling the WHO. Search “WHO Taiwan RTHK” in any search engine and you can see why.

  7. I don’t have the stats right now but recollection is that seatbelts are about 80% of the injury reduction (maybe more if just considering fataliies). Air bags add protection from soft tissue and cosmetic injuries but do not significantly reduce fatalities.

  8. Illinois just kicked a member of the state legislature out for refusing to wear a mask. He can’t go back until he complies. Mutinies will not be tolerated. If state legislators can be forced to do it, everyone can be forced to do it.

    Bailey (R) represents about 110,000 Deplorables in the 109th district of downstate, southeastern Illinois approx. 150 miles due west of Louisville, KY. He makes about $65,000 a year as a legislator. The special session he was booted from took place on the socially-distanced floor of the Bank of Springfield Center, which is a 44,000 square foot arena/convention/multipurpose hall in Springfield that was reconfigured as an ersatz legislature.

    Pics. at his “Enough is Enough” page. I guess Pritzker had Enough of him for one day.

    For those of you who don’t remember, the Pritzker family isn’t just famous for the Hyatt hotel chain. Penny Pritzker was National Finance Chair of the Barack Obama for President campaign and co-chair of the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Committee. Her family wrote the book on subprime mortgage lending, way back in the paleolithic age of 2001, years before it metastasized into the financial crisis of 2008. Hindsight is always 2020, of course, but hey, never let a crisis go to waste. If you want to be unsporting about it, you could say everyone including Barack Obama knew the Great Recession was coming for a long time, and they let it happen.

    “In retrospect, Superior Bank’s downfall should have been an alarm bell for regulators, Congress and the public that banks weren’t equipped to deal with the risks of subprime lending. Many of the root causes of its collapse now sound familiar, including rapid growth in subprime assets combined with liberal underwriting, deficient management systems, unreliable loan-loss provisions and a “nonresponsive management to supervisory concerns,” according to a Treasury Inspector General report in 2002.

    Pritzker was at least partially responsible for several of those problems. Her family owned a substantial part of the Hinsdale, Ill., thrift and she took an active role in its management.”

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