Sustainable masks & face coverings for 2022 & beyond

My personal evaluation of three consumer grade elastomeric respirators is available further down in this post: Breathe99 B2, FLO Mask, and ZShield Reveal.3 brands of reusable face mask: B2, Reveal, FLO

As of July 2022, many people claim to be “over COVID;” I’m not one of them. I continue to mask regularly. I cover my face to protect a high risk member of my household, and because I have enough uncomfortable health issues of my own already. The specter of long COVID looms large enough to make indoor masking my preference.

Long COVID is most common in middle aged people, affecting as many as one in four recovered patients according to a Nature news feature. The CDC gives me better odds than 25% in their Data for Long COVID section, but, the fact is, no one yet knows the true prevalence of the condition.

Long term, I see no reason to ever stop masking in crowded conditions such as boarding a flight or on mass transit, though my specific level of vigilance will probably vary as this pandemic wanes and flu season comes and goes.Disposable surgical mask

The particular genesis of today’s post was a New York Times article by Andrew Jacobs published July 3, 2022. It’s worth reading, but the gist is that American hospitals should have learned the supply chain lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic and switched to elastomeric respirators for essential healthcare workers by now.

Elastomeric respirators are reusable face coverings using replaceable filter elements that work as well as disposable N95s to block the flow of germs. Many are domestically produced, to boot, in marked contrast to the largely imported supply of disposable masks.

Widespread adoption of elastomeric respirators would solve the problem of being dependent upon a hostile foreign nation for vital supplies while offering equal or better protection to each wearer with a better fit and simultaneously creating less waste.

Win-win-win.Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines elastomer as a noun, "any of various elastic substances resembing rubber"

The “elastomeric” part of the elastomeric respirator just means the body of the filtering face mask in question is stretchy or otherwise like rubber.

If the NYT article is to be believed, elastomeric respirators are often judged more comfortable by the wearer than N95s. Disposable filters are still required, but they might require only annual replacement for a few dollars, while the main body of the device—composed of washable silicone—should last a decade at a one time cost of $15-40 each.

For about two thirds of the money spent by the Trump administration attempting to sterilize and re-use N95s, we could have outfitted each of the nation’s 18 million health care workers with an elastomeric respirator according to Nicolas Smit as quoted in Jacobs’ article.Pile of money

Or, to harp on the affordability point from a different angle, a paper published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons showed: “Outfitting… workers [with elastomeric respirators] was one-tenth as expensive than supplying them with disposable N95s. A separate study found that after one year, the filters were still 99 percent effective.”

And, given the chance to switch back to N95s after the study period in question, none of the employees opted to do so. I take that to mean those healthcare workers found the alternative masks easier to wear or use.

Toward the end of the New York Times piece was a mention of just one particular small business that’s giving up in the face of the healthcare system’s irrational insistence on sticking with disposable, imported masks. Breathe99—whose elastomeric respirator made the cover of Time magazine in 2020 as an innovation prize-winner—is winding down operations at the company’s Minnesota plant.

I followed the link, and found that I could purchase Breathe99’s B2 mask at retail as of early July 2022. Since I still see daily death reports in my newspaper, I remain in the market for comfortable, effective face coverings. I decided to resume exploration of better Personal Protective Equipment (P.P.E.), hoping I can reduce waste while staying safe.

I don’t buy disposable water bottles or accept single use plastic cutlery when I get takeout food, so why should I continue to rely upon paper face masks when more comfortable, equally effective alternatives exist?

One caveat: there are officially approved elastomeric respirators for clinical use, but consumer grade options are unlikely to be officially NIOSH approved. Whether this is due to pandemic backlogs or if it is just a regulatory grey area, I’m not informed enough to say. Just be aware that we still have no official designation for effective, FDA-approved consumer grade face coverings.

Now that mask mandates have ended and masking is a voluntary, personal choice in most settings, the up side to all of that reckless abandon is that no one is likely to complain about any specific face covering I acquire or wear. There should be no push back to the lack of an official protection rating for any mask I select.

On the down side, I’m left having to hope these products actually work as designed, and as represented by their manufacturers. I’m “doing my own research” here because I have no choice if I want a comfortable, well-fitting, effective face covering. I do go all the way to published papers from scientific journals and material spec sheets whenever possible.

For example, here’s a USA Today fact checking story about why filter media with a physical pore size of around 0.3 micron can be quite efficient at stopping SARS-CoV-2 viral particles which are themselves closer to 0.1 micron.

One clear takeaway of the past couple of years is that any mask offers better protection from airborne viruses than a bare face does. I do feel confident that I won’t end up worse off than I would be wearing a cloth mask or an ill-fitting surgical one when I don a tight-sealing face covering utilizing an effective filter medium at the point(s) where all my breath enters or exits the device.

The author wearing an improvised home-made face covering in 2020

This improvised face covering was my first attempt at masking when the idea was introduced to the general public in 2020. This loose, single layer of fabric is obviously not protective in the way a fitted non-woven medical mask would be, but I crafted it for passing strangers on walks around my neighborhood, so, in hindsight, I wasn’t at high risk when I wore it.

I will compare and contrast three intriguing designs that I’ve purchased at retail and tested for myself for the reader’s convenience. Because these elastomeric products are relatively expensive—from $60 to 90 per starter kit—I hope my comparison will help others pick a useful style.

Because of the note of doom sounded by the NYT article that sent me down this path, I advise anyone picking up one of these expensive face coverings to stock up on specialized, custom fit filters while they are still available. We as a society seem to have learned very little from the deprivations and death wrought by COVID-19. Even top quality, well designed products may be dropped from the market if their makers go out of business.

I ordered three different face coverings direct via their manufacturer’s web sites, paying the stated retail price. Here’s the list including the July 2022 list price:

  1. B2 mask by Breathe99 as referenced in the NYT article ($59.99)
  2. FLO Mask for adults or children though I’m only testing the adult version ($89.99)
  3. ZShield Reveal rigid mask which I pre-ordered and got in 2021 ($89.99)

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Home education success: elite college acceptance!

For modern, middle class American parents of high school seniors, there can be perhaps no better holiday gift than finding out one’s child has been accepted into the college of his or her choice. Getting the financial aid package one needs to make attendance feasible is often a close second.

My own baby-who-is-now-technically-an-adult received the good news this week. He was accepted Early Decision* to his preferred university. The kid certainly did most of the hard work for this achievement… but, as a home educating parent, I’m going to take at least a small bow for my part.

Together, we took the road less traveled by, and that gamble appears to have paid off. It may not have “made all the difference,” but our unique choices do appear to have impressed the admissions officers in question.

About 3% of U.S. students elected home education over the past decade, except during the pandemic, when the rate jumped to an unprecedented 11.1%. (Source: Census.gov)

According to published statistics from my child’s intended university, just over 11% of applicants were accepted in its previous class. I mention this statistic as a nod to my kid’s hard work and success, but also as vindication of the fact that the typical way is not the only way to get into an eliteschool.

My kid never took an AP course or exam… but he did start attending Community College courses as a high school freshman.

If you’re lucky enough to live in a school district that offers a Dual Enrollment program to its students, your children might earn actual college credits for less than the fee required to take an AP exam that only claims to approximate college level learning for the high school audience.

Why settle for the simulation?

My own selective private college did not grant any credit for students arriving even with the highest AP exam result of five out of five. All I got for that expensive test fee ($96 in 2021) was the ability to replace mandatory Freshman English Composition class with the Literature course of my choice. Total savings: $0. A department placement test could have granted the same privilege for nothing but an hour of my time.

AP classes and exams, like the SAT, are products offered exclusively through the “nonprofit” organization, the College Board.

This Wikipedia article gets at some of what bothers me about the College Board.

I’m all for high standards, but I think that an annual gauntlet of standardized tests actually lowers the level of meaningful engagement for most while offering any given student no educational advantage. Does anyone believe kids today find the standard curriculum particularly relevant or intellectually stimulating? Test takers themselves get nothing for the hours they spend sitting these exams.

I also think a test all but required for university admission should be much less expensiveto everyone, without submitting embarrassing financial aid forms–than the SAT is. Not everyone can spare $55 plus all the extra potential fees one could accrue, but we’re all aware that wealthy families typically pay hundreds if not thousands more for “optional” tutoring, multiple test-taking attempts to increase scores via brute force attack, or to flat-out fraudulently pay a ringer to replace their less able children at the desk on exam day.

No, if a test is going to be mandatory for college admission, it should be offered, at minimum, at every public high school for free, perhaps in place of one of the other annual exams our taxes already pay for.

Beyond the College Board’s offensive effect on students’ schedules and pocketbooks, I’d argue that the directors of an education nonprofit reaching its fingers into the pockets of every college-bound student in the country should earn far less exorbitant compensation. The CEO earns well over $1 million annually. There’s no genius required to squeeze money out of a captive audience desperate for the elevating power of a prestigious degree.A red leatherette University degree folio stacked with a black High School diploma case

In case it isn’t obvious, I’m a huge fan of the move toward test-optional admissions that the pandemic accelerated. My child did choose to submit scores because one of his safety schools requires them specifically for home educated applicants. His efforts earned solid, if not spectacular, results. That was “good enough” because home education for high school allowed for the accumulation of more than thirty actual college credits along the way.

What better evidence that one is well-suited to college level work than a 3.96 GPA… at college?

I’d like to see even more options available rather than definitive “test blind” policies dictating against even considering any test results.

Given my druthers, I would let students select for themselves how to put their best individual feet forward. I appreciate startups like the CLT (Classic Learning Test) seeking to disrupt the status quo though I liked them a lot more when the CLT10 alternative to the PSAT was free for all takers. It now costs $44, and the SAT-equivalent CLT $54, while being of interest to far fewer institutions than the SAT or ACT.

As a rule, I abhor most of what the College Board stands for today as a barrier between those who yearn for an education and college admission. Historically, when the SAT was closer to an IQ test than a Common Core final exam, its limited usefulness was more obvious for students whose schools didn’t offer advanced coursework. I’m happy that we engaged so little with that organization, with an October sitting of the SAT our sole act of acquiescence to their extortionist monopoly.

Perhaps it would be better if individual institutions returned to more unique applications and processes, testing would-be students for themselves on exactly what matters to their program. The Common Application (and its cousin the Coalition Application) may have removed the drudgery of filling in repetitive information across multiple similar forms, but the ease of shotgunning applications has also led to ridiculous bloat in the average number of schools considered by each student.

The average cost to apply to each college in America was $44 apiece in 2020 (arithmetic mean, most likely), but elite schools more often charge around $75, and some institutions expect more than $100 per applicant just for the chance to be rejected! Here’s looking at you, U.C. San Diego & (bafflingly) Arkansas Baptist College.

Kids are applying to more universities because they are afraid they won’t get in to any of the places they’d really like to attend. A return to specialized applications could ease this inanity.

I tend to be somewhat contrarian, if that’s not obvious, and I made that fact clear to my child as decisions were made during his home education journey. “Typical school enrollees do this,” I would point out, “and here’s how I feel about that, but this other position might make you more competitive.”

My opinions did seem to influence my kid, but the application process was his own. We did not supervise or monitor his application. We didn’t even see it§ until he was finished. At that point, he asked both parents to be proofreaders a day or so before the submission deadline.

That’s the way it should be when a child reaches the cusp of adulthood. That was the underlying foundation of every lesson I sought to teach my child via home education. If he had an idea for a way to reach the goals we’d set, it was his right to try that way unless it proved ineffective or inconvenient.

Modern institutional schools are a mere blip in human history, and learning is available to all of us, from far more corners than educational power brokers would lead the masses to believe. Strict policies and procedures tend to be convenient for bureaucrats, not conducive to individual excellence.

My hat is off to my dear child who did the work, made his choices, lived with their consequences, and seems to be reaping the just rewards of all that effort.

If you’re a potential homeschooler or home educating parent reading this while mulling your own options, I encourage you to follow your instincts and do what feels right for your child or yourself if you are the student. That may look “normal,” or it may give the relatives pause. Where the result is a young person gaining skills and internalizing the value of education for its own sake, damn the optics.

My child is one more data point showing there’s more than one way to get admitted to an excellent college in 2021. Your kid could be the next.

Best wishes to the class of ’22, and may all of your dreams–college or otherwise–come true.

*Early Decision, as the name implies, is an application process whereby a student submits materials early to one and only one college, creating a binding agreement to matriculate to the chosen institution if accepted. “Early” means applying by November whereas the usual deadline is January. In exchange, the student knows by mid-December instead of in the spring if s/he’s been accepted.

Early Action is a similar, but non-binding process, for those who’d like earlier decisions without committing to attend a certain school. Often this is to allow for comparing merit-based financial aid packages, which can make or break a deal for middle class kids.

I’ll use the term “elite” because this university ranks within the top 50 domestic schools according to US News & World Reports. For my child’s privacy, I prefer not to make public his choice of institution.

Dual Enrollment, sometimes called Concurrent Enrollment, usually refers to a program wherein high school students take college courses and earn simultaneous credit toward a secondary school diploma and future university studies. Wikipedia offers a more detailed description, but these programs vary widely in availability and cost between states or even by local community. For example, our district offered full tuition for one course during a single year of of my child’s high school period. Because the state program funding Dual Enrollment was directed toward communities in need, and our city’s demographics improved at the community level, he was only eligible for free tuition in 9th grade. Since then, we paid out of pocket for higher education classes, mostly at our affordable local community college.These costs were significantly lower than private high school tuition would have been.

§As a home schooling parent, it was my responsibility to prepare a letter in place of the usual college admissions counselor recommendation, but I logged on to the application through a separate portal unique to educators. I could only see what the student applicant would normally show a counselor.

Facing pandemic persistence, I’ll spend where safety dictates policy

We have made it to August 2021. Sadly, the pandemic is not over, though the most vulnerable people in America have been tricked into behaving as if it is.

Decisions were made to re-open all venues while simultaneously dropping every protective precaution. Some of us believe that choice was precipitous, even reckless. I feel vindicated as my logic proves sound… but also so deeply disappointed.

I know I like redundancies more than most, but this seemed so obvious. “Better safe than sorry” may be trite, but it’s also wise where human lives are on the line.

How ’bout making one change at a time? After each change, observe the effect. It works for scientists, after all.

Oh, right, science is a tool for the liberal elite! Yet fools parroting such nonsense do it gasping through their fluid-filled lungs, crowding into our hospitals—institutions steeped in modern medical knowledge derived via the scientific method.

Some feel their lives aren’t worth living if they have to wear a mask to go shopping. Safety goggles, cloth face mask, and disposable gloves

I wonder how those precious snowflakes would hold up under conditions of true adversity. I imagine the oppressed population of Myanmar—or the people in Haiti or Tunisia, watching their fragile governments wobble under anti-democratic onslaughts—could offer lessons on what really constitutes a hardship to pampered American crybabies.

I would recognize that wearing a mask pales in comparison to being the target of genocide even had I never visited Auschwitz.

What a summer we could have had! If only we’d been cautious enough to resume access to theaters and restaurants, but with our masks in place for crowded, indoor conditions from the outset. It might have been the joyful reunion we all dreamed of during 2020’s isolation, loneliness, and despair.Woman hugs child

Hugging my grandma with a mask on didn’t lessen the joy of it. Visiting with my aunt over coffee on the patio instead of in the kitchen offered equal satisfaction. Espresso in demitasse cup on cafe table

Watching as my father’s “elective”—yet quality of life preserving—joint replacement surgery was postponed once, and then a second time, because no hospital bed was available was yet one more cost of the pandemic, but, this time, caused directly by bad actors, not a novel disease with unknown characteristics.

Now that stung.Analog wall clock showing 12:06

Frankly, I believe libertarian freedoms should be available… but only at a reasonable price. Partakers in those freedoms must give up the right to extort payment from the sensible majority.

Refusing vaccines? Fine, but wear a mask in public settings. Also, public funds—and even private insurance—should eventually cease to pay treatment costs incurred by those rejecting approved vaccines for endemic disease sufficient to be flagged by public health authorities.

The price of ignoring experts when an entire society experiences extreme events should be borne by those who choose to heed only their own counsel. That’s a fair trade off.

During outbreaks of any vaccine-preventable, endemic illness, refusniks must also give up the freedom to enjoy entertainment venues and public conveyances for all but essential purposes. Take your bus across town to work—while masked—sure, but recreational jaunts and all air travel unless, say, to receive urgent medical care out of state ought to be curtailed for those likely to spread disease.

NZ Chch bus MetroUnvaccinated kids should learn remotely unless masks are shown to be sufficient in preventing the spread of measles, chickenpox, the equally transmissible delta variant of COVID-19, and any future outbreak of similarly easily spread viruses.

If masks prove to work as well as that, I am 100% fine with unvaccinated kids—wearing masks—in schools forever. The point is to keep vaccine-preventable germs contained, not to dictate personal decisions that affect only oneself.

It should go without saying that the vaccinated should always be prioritized over the voluntarily unvaccinated when medical treatment becomes a scarce commodity that must be rationed. I hope and pray it doesn’t come to that, but, today, I fear for the people of Florida, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Mississippi and Alabama look pretty terrible, too.

Pandemic illness currently strains the pathetically insufficient “just in time” commercial hospitals in these and other states. An August 5th AP news story describes one Broward County hospital cramming beds into auditorium, cafeteria, and conference rooms to accommodate surging COVID-19 caseloads.

How pathetic that we allowed ourselves to fall back to this point more than a year after learning how and where this virus spreads!

Speaking to business owners and service providers, I reiterate that my personal spending will be concentrated in locations with high rates of vaccination. Pile of money

I will preferentially patronize restaurants and stores that demand proof of vaccination before letting anyone remove her mask.

It shouldn’t fall to commercial interests to manage a public health crisis, but dysfunctional politics brought us to that point. Re-opening—with precautions—allows for increased economic activity without excessive deaths. That’s the course I’ll vote for with my wallet.

Here’s hoping leadership by accounting departments can make up for the inadequacies of incompetent elected officials.

Satisfaction derived from one (novel) work in progress

Five weeks in, I’ve written 39,645 words. I’m working on a novel.

If I ever finish it, and then publish it, you should definitely read it.

39,645 ÷ 5 = 7929 words per week

7929 ÷ 7 ≅ 1133 words per day

Truthfully, I don’t know whether to crow about this rate of progress, or if I should be mildly—or wildly—embarrassed by my sloth. Remember, I’m a dilettante who hasn’t published much more than a blog.

Then again, the world can—and will—think what it wants. In the meantime, I shall carry on developing the imaginary universe I can’t help myself from inhabiting, trying to do justice to a scientific concept that my celebrated husband offered as a plot device.

I think it is working. The fact is ridiculously exciting.

On the evening of day 35, around page 170, I got to the good part. You know, that moment where a handful of threads are woven together, and one suddenly understands why we heard about this, then that, then the other thing… ?

Truthfully, I didn’t, myself, see all of it coming. My takeaway: writing fiction can be weird.

If I were a different kind of creature, perhaps I could keep up with regular installments for a diverting blog while crafting a novel clever people would feel compelled to read. My reality defies this notion. The same pool of energy feeds both projects.

Alas, poor readers! The novel wins.

Lately, the novel also encourages me to imbibe a glass of wine alongside the lighting of a five-armed, silver-plated candelabra from my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, so it’s kind of a strange beast. Either that, or I am the odd one, but don’t you like knowing you are reading a work composed on a laptop by candlelight? That’s not just me, is it?

I’d love to share the recent story of “My First Flight in the Era of the Novel Coronavirus” (hint: uneventful) or “Flying vs. Amtrak Reality for Those Who Take Delta Variant Seriously” (hint: airlines impose mask regulations more seriously than train conductors), but I am forced to choose.

Happily, the kids and I have made it across the USA and back into the physical presence of my father. He needs an elective-yet-function-improving surgery, he was waiting to have family around to get the thing done, and it’s a Really Wonderful Thing that we are here to support him through the process.

Today we had to change the bed sheets prior to surgery and he started bathing with the special, sticky, infection-defying soap. Now, how do we keep the dog off his bed until the incisions heal?

It’s also downright bizarre to be anywhere other than where we’ve been for the past 17 months or so. How often are the rest of you realizing how definitely we are living through Interesting Times? How often do you give thanks for the fact that you’re still around to notice said fact?

My personal answer to that last one: at least once daily.

It’s almost definitely good for my family to have its paradigm shifted at this point. I know that I have become a creature who might just as well never leave the house at all, if left to my own devices. That could likely earn me some kind of diagnosis from the DSM if I were inclined to seek professional opinions on the subject.

I’m not.

Lacking that kind of openness to criticism, I still know I benefit from noticing what’s different here (time zone, state, county, population density) vs. what’s the same. The part where the kids and I are living with Dad’s pandemic puppy is a learning experience.

While I grew up with pets, the last time I lived full time with any was a pair of cats in the 1990’s.

I was really worried that Dad wasn’t training his dog, but the pup is much better behaved than Dad’s most comedic text messages suggested. Phew!

Fear not, blog-reading friends. I am alive, healthy, and grateful for both of these things to be true. Here’s hoping that soon I’ll be begging you, my favorite audience, for beta readers for a dys-/utopian novel. Is anyone game?

May you all remain healthier than the arborvitae my dad put in his yard right before temps topped 116º F here. He’ll be lucky if 2/5 survive the summer, I’d guess. God willing, the delta variant will remain less deadly than that ratio.