Barbara Sofer

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What's the truth behind wearing face masks?

By Barbara Sofer

July 17, 2020

If every Jew kept the Shabbat at the same time, even once – some opinions say twice – the Messiah would immediately appear (Jer. Talmud Ta’anit 1:1).

What if everyone in Israel wore a protective mask and kept social distancing for two Shabbatot and time in-between? Wouldn’t the coronavirus numbers shoot downward and ultimately disappear? Imagine – if we could all follow the rules, COVID-19 wouldn’t be making thousands sick and killing hundreds in our country. Then we wouldn’t need lockdowns. The economy could return to its vibrant self. We would be included among the safe nations.

Out of frustration and fear, I recently decided to upgrade my own mask. I bought one of the several brands of the hi-tech masks invented and produced right here in Israel.

We can all understand initial ambivalence about the masks. Both the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization said we didn’t need them at first and Israel followed. Then they reversed themselves. It’s been months now since studies showed that viral load peaks before symptoms. A regular conversation – not to mention our Israeli vociferous ones – expels the virus-carrying droplets.

According to US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, masks weren’t advised to the public from the start because of anticipated shortages. They didn’t want us to run out and buy up all the masks, or the ambulance crews, doctors and nurses wouldn’t have enough.

The next misinformation was that masks would only help us from unwittingly infecting others. In other words, young persons and skeptics were urged to wear masks for altruistic reasons, to protect grandparents or maybe a classmate with asthma or cancer.

Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent proclamation that two persons wearing masks and sitting two meters apart have a near zero chance of infecting each other sounded tepid.

We Israelis, champions at many things, are sloppy mask wearers. If wearing masks at all, many use them as chin straps for sagging skin, or fail to cover noses, the direct channel to the respiratory system. Government officials have been atrocious role models, as if they are winking at the restrictions.

That’s wrecking the economy and costing lives.

My immediate trigger to upgrade my mask was the vacation we planned when the numbers of infections were falling. We would meet our offspring and their families at our favorite beachside hotel – which was just opening and following rules – 55 minutes from home.

Then, suddenly, the numbers were no longer falling.

I wanted a bio-active mask that would protect me and knock-out any viruses propelled my way. I’d heard about these virus and bacteria-belligerent masks for years. My brother-in-law, Gil Goller, a retired patent attorney, had written the patent for one of the companies years before we’d heard of coronavirus. When he and my sister Charlotte went on their trips to Miami or Mumbai, they were always masked, usually the only Israelis to board that way. True, it seemed a little overcautious, but they never got sick. Who doesn’t remember panicking when our seatmates coughed and sneezed their way across the Atlantic in the old days when we flew in crowded jet airplanes?

Until now, I’ve been relying on disposable surgical masks, which are indeed useful, but less good for prolonged use. Because I am a hat-wearing religious Jew, matching my hats to my clothing, I forgo fashion-statement masks. Too much matching.

A word about the hi-tech masks. They’ve passed laboratory tests, not broad clinical trials. But neither are the medicines that are being tried in the outbreak wards. Who can wait?

Impressive Israeli scientists’ names are attached to these blue-and-white inventions and the science on their websites sounds sound. In general, the companies use cloth imbued with copper or zinc-oxide and feature layers with nanomembranes that are supposed to stop even tiny viruses from wriggling through. They’re reputedly being used in China and Hong Kong, where wise men and women have long been compliant in wearing masks against pollution, common colds and lethal viruses.

One of the mask makers I interviewed for this column told me I would be preaching to the choir in The Jerusalem Post – that we English-speaking Israelis are the most obedient mask-wearers. He said that native Israelis are averse to covering their faces because of the way we like to communicate with each other and need to read each other’s expressions. We’re ranked among the world’s most educated nations. With the correct promotion we can get over our need to see smiles, the way we upped our wine-drinking habits when we learned red wine was good for us.

If we all understood that a mask can be a weapon against viruses, they might be more popular. When I spoke to manufacturers, they talked about “kill time” – the minutes it now takes for that innocuous-looking mask to take down a lethal virus. Virus-killer masks.

The mask I bought is expensive, around 250 shekels, but if the government invested in this industry, boosting production and employing the unemployed, it could certainly become less pricey. Liat Goldhammer, the chief technical officer of Sonovia masks, spoke of her vision of the many now-unemployed women who had previously supported their families working in textile workshops making bathing suits and party dresses but have lost their jobs, could now repurpose their sewing machines for mask-making.

The mask I bought is soft and comfortable but not beautiful. It’s a little beaky and warlike. Maybe that’s good.

I never did get to try it out on a vacation. Our favorite hotel is in Ashdod, which by bad luck, was the national coronavirus hot spot when we were scheduled to go. I consulted on coronavirus matters with my rebbe, whose name oddly is Moses – Hadassah’s Prof. Alon Moses – and decided that the risks outweighed the benefits. In the meantime, it’s staycation for us.

Still, I like the idea that my husband and I can walk any street of Jerusalem in killer masks.



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