Masks may be liberty-preserving alternative to mandatory vaccines or vax passports

There may be an alternative to mandatory vaccines and the inherent privacy and security concerns of either paper or electronic vaccine passports: allow people to opt out, but normalize the use of masks in densely populated, public, indoor settings when conditions suggest caution is demanded.

In the United States, this requirement should be tied directly to CDC reported rates of dangerous, communicable diseases with wastewater surveillance informing decisions. Medical research should be funded to track the effectiveness of masks against flu and anything else that’s feasible, not just COVID-19.

Ongoing investigation of the role aerosols—and inadequate ventilationplay in spreading common diseases demands equal attention and funding.

I, for one, would not return to an office as of May 2021 without a mask on my face if the space didn’t promise four to six air changes every hour or a fully vaccinated cohort of coworkers! This Wired story is a must read for those who’d like to understand the origins of medicine’s deeply flawed 5 μ myth defining “airborne” pathogens.

While our coronavirus memories are fresh, we owe it to future generations to prepare better for the next global outbreak. It is as inevitable as SARS-CoV-2 was. Fumbling our collective response, however, is not preordained.

We’ve learned a lot during the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ample real world evidence is now available suggesting that even simple homemade cloth coverings reduce the risk of infection from at least this one airborne virus. Flu also virtually disappeared during the 2020-21 season, though that could be as readily attributed to social distance and isolation as opposed to masks.

In the absence of the worldwide supply chain disruptions common early in this pandemic, more definitively effective surgical and N95 masks are easily obtained and affordable. Employers with public storefronts should have boxes of them deployed in the workplace in the same way food service companies provide gloves to their workers.

Unfolded ProGear N95 mask sitting in front box of 50 it came in

As with gloves and hairnets in restaurant kitchens, masks should be the immediate, hygienic response to entering the personal space of unknown persons with unknown vaccination status while any community is in the throes of an infectious agent.

Massachusetts’s governor is quoted in a May 7th Boston Globe opinion piece as saying, “some people have ‘very legitimate reasons to be nervous about a government-run program that’s going to put a shot in their arm.’” The same piece goes on to report, “Attorney General Maura Healey… this week repeated her call for public employees to be vaccinated as a condition of their jobs.”

Requiring every public employee in a customer facing position to wear a face mask at work unless s/he chooses to offer verifiable proof of vaccination seems like a cheap, simple, practical solution to me. As every scientifically literate, law-abiding citizen of the United States now knows, wearing a mask is no more difficult* than wearing pants.

Rome, the power house of the ancient world, believed trousers were ridiculous, barbaric garments. Quite literally, Romans, like the Greeks before them, saw pants as uncivilized clothing fit only for uncouth Goths and Vandals. The entire Western world, and most people around the globe, now don trousers without compunction. Masking one’s face requires no greater degree of adaptation!

Most of us could decide which we prefer at work: to wear a mask, or to accept vaccination. Crucially, the public at large ends up protected either way.Redacted official CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card

I think it is likely that I, personally, will never want to fly again without a face covering, if only because I’m so well aware of my own tendency to touch my face and even bite my nails when experiencing anxiety. It’s a terrible habit I’ve never been able to break, but a comfortable face shield or mask would remove almost all of that risk to my health.

There will always be liars and attempted cheats, of course. Responses to those caught committing public health fraud should be proportionate and focused on preventing harm to the community.

Perhaps being fitted with a device designed like the ankle bracelets employed for house arrest for a period of time would work, offering a visible warning to strangers while broadcasting via Bluetooth? a message alerting those in the vicinity of the need to increase social distance. This could be a system that works with individual’s cell phones, or a device required for public occupancy of spaces meeting certain size or density limits rather like the requirement to install smoke alarms and fire sprinklers before opening a hotel or nightclub for business.

The primary solution is to normalize the continued use of masks in dense situations where we crowd together with unknown persons. The secondary need is for public spaces to meet reasonable, updated standards for safety in light of our current understanding of risk in the post-COVID-19 world.

Once COVID-19 vaccines are fully approved by the FDA, I do believe that employees who work specifically with the most vulnerable population should be required to accept vaccination or leave those particular roles.

Aides in nursing homes should not be able to opt out of coronavirus vaccines, nor the flu vaccine in normal years, nor should nurses serving the immune-compromised. Prison guards—who work with populations literally unable to escape from unvaccinated sources of exposure—are another obvious group whose personal choices should not be allowed to endanger the lives or health of others.

The actual conditions of employment for such positions demand a workforce that doesn’t subject other people to unnecessary risk so easily mitigated by inoculation. Case in point: the unvaccinated Kentucky health care worker who caused the death of three elderly residents of the nursing home where s/he worked. To pretend otherwise makes a mockery of both human decency and common sense.

In another example: a recent study published in JAMA showed that 46% of organ transplant patients produced zero antibodies after a complete 2 shot course of SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine. It’s unreasonable that such individuals should be unknowingly subjected to the ministrations—however well-intentioned—of unvaccinated health care workers, certainly not without the immune-compromised patient’s being informed of their relative risk and given the opportunity to offer fully informed consent to taking said risk.

Face masks could also offer an effective solution for the conflict between public school vaccination requirements and anti-vaxxer parents currently allowed in some states to claim religious or other non-medical exemptions for their children.

Further research might prove that masks are not effective against every disease against which we have mandatory childhood vaccinations, but face coverings could potentially eliminate the friction between parent choice and community health in the context of the vital public good which is free, universal education.

Where freedom is the prize—and outbreaks of vaccine-preventable childhood infectious disease remain rare in America—I’d argue that the value of face masks as an alternative to mandatory injections is well worth exploring.Disposable surgical mask

Western medical science was patently wrong, before COVID-19, when it declaimed that face coverings offered no protection from infectious disease. We still aren’t sure if they protect the wearer so much as those in the vicinity of a masked, sick individual, but we do have substantial evidence that widespread adoption of masks can protect populations during a deadly outbreak.

Perhaps most importantly, where even the most well-vetted, safest vaccine or medication carries some tiny risk of harm to its recipient, wearing an appropriate, well-fitting mask correctly has virtually zero chance of injuring anyone. Low cost interventions with few side effects are ideal public health measures.

Asian nations which had internalized the historical lessons of earlier epidemics had it right; many** normalized face coverings during flu season. Now we know better, too. Science proves its inherent value when we incorporate new data into our body of knowledge, especially when we recognize data challenging existing beliefs and ingrained patterns of behavior.

This BMJ editorial (PDF) highlights the danger of clinging to false understandings. This opinion piece by Dr. Zeynep Tufekci is well worth a read on the subject of organizations lurching only slowly toward acceptance of new information challenging medical and scientific preconceptions.

Before the next pandemic, we should take great pains to study when, where, and how cheap, medically risk-free facial coverings work to effectively control the spread of disease. How many thousands fewer would have died if we’d deployed masks as a solution worldwide in days instead of months in 2020?

This is not merely a political issue. It is a matter of public health. Where solutions exist that preserve both life and liberty, we owe it to democracy—and humanity—to explore every possible compromise.

Per the CDC, roughly 1000 flu cases were diagnosed during the pandemic 2020-21 season vs. more than 65,000 cases in the more typical 2019-20 season.

* As with trousers, some are the wrong size, and some are more comfortable on a particular body than others. Trial and error may be required to find the perfect fit for a given individual. Compared with the effort necessary to remediate infecting a susceptible individual with a life-threatening disease, this process is, at worst, a trivial inconvenience.

Per the Boston Globe: One of the major senior care operators in the state of Massachusetts came to a similar conclusion before COVID-19, though the quote perversely suggests that the organization was more interested in shaming staff members as opposed to protecting elderly residents:

“A year before the pandemic, Hebrew SeniorLife required flu shots for the first time for staff. Administrators achieved 100 percent compliance by imposing what seemed at the time an onerous condition: Holdouts would be required to wear masks 24/7 during flu season.

‘That was totally embarrassing then, but not now,” Woolf said. “We don’t have that hammer anymore.’”

In my opinion, after legitimate scientific studies were conducted to confirm that mask use by unvaccinated staff protects vulnerable patients to an equivalent level as vaccinated staff with faces uncovered, this could be a sufficient and highly appropriate alternative to mandatory shots in some cases.

Voluntary residential situations for children under age 18 should probably be held to a higher standard, in my opinion, and strictly require vaccinations for all but medically exempt participants. Absent direct parental supervision, it seems unreasonable to subject anyone else’s child to unnecessary risk due to personal choices that contradict the best current medical advice.

** Routine wearing of masks was imported to Japan from Western nations who’d adopted them as one response to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Unlike we Americans, Japanese culture never dropped them as a reasonable personal response to being contagious after the urgency of the Great Influenza subsided.

This Huffington Post article suggests that the Chinese adopted protective face coverings even earlier: “In 1910 and 1911, citizens were encouraged to wear masks to combat the pneumonic plague outbreak in Manchuria.”

The article goes on to point out that other Asian nations picked up the habit of covering faces during outbreaks due specifically to the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003. I’ve read that Koreans, in particular, actually viewed masks in a somewhat negative light as a foreign, Japanese import before the first SARS crisis.

Seeking only perfect role models means failing to learn from history

Like many others—including the city’s mayor—I find the choice by the San Francisco Board of Education to spend its time focused on name changes for 1/3 of its public schools in the midst of a pandemic quite shocking. It strikes me as a misuse of resources when the children the Board is commissioned to serve are struggling to learn remotely with no* firm re-opening plans in place.

Binder page listing high school courses for grade 10Contrary to the far right, white supremacist commentators who unilaterally dismiss that Board of Education’s actions as essentially foolish, I’d like to make clear that I support discussion of social justice issues in this context. The feelings of enrolled students about the namesake of their institution deserve to be recognized, though, crucially in my opinion, not catered to by default, and never without extensive study and careful reflection when a preponderance of reasonable people hold differing opinions.

Talking about thorny questions is helpful, even vital to each pupil’s education. Confronting difficult episodes in our shared history enables us to be better as a nation and to become better individual human beings. I disagree with some of the ultimate decisions made by the San Francisco Board of Education about striking particular names from schools, but it’s not because I am unaware of mistakes made by leaders in earlier eras.

By my reckoning, the great hubristic error shown by that Board is the futile quest to pretend any perfect role model exists, unblemished enough to “deserve” to have a school named for him or her.back side of Christopher Columbus monument in Barcelona, Spain

No man or woman can be held up as a paragon of all virtues for all times. All of us fail; the very best of us will lead a life full of foibles. Some of us succeed handsomely in our own time, but later run afoul of changing notions of decency in another era.

The greater the risks taken in life, the more likely we are to make at least one real doozy of an error. People who devote lives to public service will fail with an audience, by definition. Should we teach our children to avoid any action to circumvent the possibility of failure? Do we want tomorrow’s adults to be more afraid of being judged by history than they are of taking part in—and becoming leaders of—public life?

Speaking for myself: no, I would not choose to teach that lesson to my kids or anyone else’s. I think the San Francisco Board of Education is doing a grave disservice to the children it serves by wielding nuanced history as a blunt instrument. Ironically, time is unlikely to be kind to its members. If they are remembered at all, it may well be for presumption and self-righteousness.

There is evidence that children allowed to fail, shown how to learn from their mistakes, then given opportunities to try again to find success grow into healthier, more productive adults. Given the 100% probability that a human being will screw up, a focus on incremental improvement seems like the wisest approach to raising and teaching young ones.

Christen your institutions with improper nouns defining high ideals if you still demand perfection: Liberté, égalité, fraternité, perhaps? Freedom? Justice? Unity? My personal favorite is Integrity.

Statue of LibertyIrreproachable individuals don’t exist, San Francisco Board of Education, but I’m curious to see who you believe holds up better to scrutiny than yesterday’s heroes with their feet of clay.

The social justice warriors on San Francisco’s Board of Education might not like being compared to fascists, but, to me, the parallels are obvious. People in power are attempting to strong-arm the world into abiding by their own narrow standards, ignoring complex reality in favor of pat party lines and simplifications that cast “the other” as willfully evil. Without a doubt, extremist elements on the left are also prone to seeking economic and social regimentation with forcible suppression of opposition.

Our young people didn’t invent cancel culture. Students of history will recognize the eradication of the names of pharaohs such as Akhenaten and Hatshepsut as a similar insult to non-conformists. The term damnatio memoriae may be modern**, but the concept is not.

Let’s teach our children to honor what’s good in our history while recognizing errors for what they were: human failings. Then, we learn what we can from those past mistakes, incorporating their lessons into our own pursuit of a better future. Isn’t that the ultimate point of public education?

* As of January 29, 2021, as I write these words, only one school’s re-opening plan has reached the Site Assesment stage and zero (0) applications to re-open have been accepted.

Presenting a role model as too perfect actually prevents teens from seeing a path to similar success for him- or herself. According to the linked study, kids benefit more from learning about Thomas Edison who worked very hard to achieve success (in spite of his reputation as a real jerk) vs. Albert Einstein whom most regard as a born genius with preternatural intellectual abilities.

On a television show I watched recently, the teens attended a school called Excellence. That’s a fine paradigm for which to aim.

Too bad one of the hyper-pressured teen characters felt compelled to abuse drugs to keep up and cope with the stress, and an otherwise ethical teacher on the show guides a young child toward cheating on high stakes exams to chase the academy’s pursuit of excellence in its reputation over the needs of that pupil.

** 17th century

Jigsaw puzzle as travel diversion: Wentworth offers tiny wooden treasures you can work on a tray table

I’ve written about the joys of wooden jigsaw puzzles before.

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth Artifact Dowdle Liberty Ravensburger - 1They are exactly what you’d expect if you’ve ever done a modern cardboard puzzle. Visualize a similar product cut from thin sheets of wood instead of flimsier paper. For those who get annoyed with ill fitting or torn pieces in the Springbok or other puzzles sold at the local big box store, wooden puzzles offer a much more satisfying experience.

Ordering my first wooden puzzle was a leap of faith. They cost a lot more than mass market cardboard ones. No one I knew had any experience to share, and the least expensive choices seemed to have tiny numbers of pieces compared to my usual 1000 piece behemoths. I was afraid I would feel I’d wasted my money.

I didn’t. Now I own about a dozen, and I covet a great many more.

While its true that the most common wooden puzzles are smaller—and made of fewer pieces—than the typical paper version, this didn’t affect my enjoyment of the new type. In fact, I found they offered a whole new realm of possibilities for portable puzzling.

Something about the cut of a wooden puzzle, and perhaps its more three dimensional nature, makes me focus more on shape and less on the image. I feel like my brain gets a different kind of workout from doing a wooden puzzle.

But aside from that difference, my wooden puzzles are so small, I can work them in more places. Instead of needing my much loved but bulky Jigthings Jigboard 1000 plus half of the dining room table, I can sit on the couch with a lap desk or a half sheet baking pan to complete most of my Liberty and Artifact puzzles.

I ordered my first Wentworth wooden puzzle for $16.99 from Amazon when I noticed how tiny its listed dimensions were. I wondered if they could possibly be accurate. They were!

Wentworth 40 piece puzzle retail price appears to be $19.99.

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth AirNZ tray table - 3

Wentworth 40 piece wooden jigsaw puzzle on Air New Zealand Premium Economy tray table

The finished puzzle is about the size of a printed photograph: 4 x 6″. A 40 piece Wentworth puzzle is easily completed on an airplane tray table, and the pieces themselves take up just a bit more room than a deck of cards in their roughly 3.5″ square box.

The 54 piece Artifact puzzle, Kessel Shells, with which I’m comparing the Wentworth in most of these photographs is scarcely any larger. It just comes in a bigger, higher quality, tissue lined box with an elegant magnetic closure. I paid $18.

Small (< 90 piece) Artifact puzzles retail for $18-40.Jigsaw puzzle wood Artifact shells inside box - 1

Assembled, it fits easily inside its own box with an inch or more to spare in all three dimensions. Please note that this wouldn’t be true of all Artifact puzzles; they use one type of box for puzzles from this size on up to a medium.

Note also that the particular Artifact puzzle that I photographed for this post has a unique conceit: all of the pieces are very similar squares, and straight edges are used in the middle of the puzzle as well as for edges.

It turns out that I don’t enjoy this type of puzzle as much as a standard cut ideally with whimsies, like most other Artifact options, but it does make for pieces that are easy to re-package and transport in a small cardboard jewelry box or one’s Wentworth 40 piece box if one so desires.

Say, for example, to bring along on a plane!

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth Artifact travel - 6

Re-packaged Artifact Kessel Shells puzzle’s 54 pieces into Wentworth puzzle box to show how compactly they could be stored for travel

For use after re-packing in this manner, I tried assembling the Kessel Shells puzzle using a photo stored on my iPad for reference, and that worked fine. If your puzzle fits in your carry on bag but its box won’t, just snap a quick picture.

Harder core jigsaw puzzlers than myself are known to work puzzles without using the finished image at all. It is harder that way. Personally, I don’t enjoy the process as much, but I have done it to test myself. I find it boring with a paper puzzle’s usual standard shapes, but better with a wooden one; the pieces are almost universally more interesting when cut from wood. More care and expense goes into a typical wooden puzzle’s hand- or laser- cut craftsmanship, after all.

The smallest Liberty wooden puzzles retail for $39; they aren’t sold on Amazon, but direct from the manufacturer. I think all of their XS options are round, and most contain more pieces than other brands’ size Small.

I’ve given a few Liberty XS puzzles to my mom for gifts, so I’ve laid hands on them, but don’t have any to photograph for comparisons. They had 107-115 pieces and I found them wonderful to assemble. The attractive gift box would be bulky for travel, however, like the Artifact boxes are.

The tiny Wentworth 40 piece puzzle comes in a much smaller box than any of its competitors. It also proved to be cut from noticeably thinner wood.

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth Artifact travel - 14

Wentworth piece (top) compared to Artifact piece (bottom); both from wooden jigsaw puzzles

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth Artifact travel - 7

Storage box sizes for wooden puzzles of similar finished size; Wentworth (top) & Artifact (bottom)

Though this might affect my overall ranking of “best wooden jigsaw puzzles” for gifting purposes or in terms of total quality, it doesn’t mean Wentworth is a low quality brand! The pieces click together well enough to make for satisfying puzzle building. They just aren’t quite as luxurious as Artifact or Liberty puzzle pieces, and the whimsies seem a bit less special.

I would absolutely consider ordering another Wentworth puzzle if I liked the image depicted. My ideal puzzle size is at least several hundred pieces, and I’d love to try a really large 1000+ piece wooden puzzle someday. I do lean toward a brand with thicker pieces for the high price a large wooden puzzle commands, however.

A thinner puzzle does make for one which is easier to transport. For example, to bring along on a plane.

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth cardboard Ravensburger zoom

Compare jigsaw puzzle pieces of Ravensburger cardboard (top) to Wentworth wood (bottom)

A “thin” wooden piece from Wentworth is still thicker than that of a high quality cardboard puzzle. Here’s a picture of one to compare with a Ravensburger piece in cardboard. You can judge for yourself.

My recent trip to New Zealand was my first time bringing along an actual jigsaw puzzle for entertainment in midair. I’ve tried an iPad “jigsaw puzzle” app, but found it unappealing in practice.

Usually, I find the hours of a flight pretty easy to while away with a few books loaded on a Kindle to conserve weight and space plus some saved video content and a few casual games on my iPad or phone. I stocked up on digital and other distractions much more heavily for the marathon Transpacific flight where no wifi was available even if I got desperately bored.

When I get very tired on a long flight, my eyes stop wanting to read before my brain is willing to sleep. That’s about the only time I resort to screen time, or, more often, the crossword puzzle from the in flight magazine. This time, I followed up a lot of reading with some jigsaw puzzling. It helped me to pass the time in a fun and novel way.

If you take particular enjoyment from completing jigsaw puzzles, like I do, you might consider packing along a small one on your next long haul flight. It’s definitely better for your brain than more screen time, and it’s strangely satisfying to do something tangible with your hands instead of spending all those hours inside your jetlagged, slightly muddled mind.

I used to knit on a plane for similar reasons, but I gave it up when I couldn’t carry my mini scissors any longer. Also, I heard horror stories about knitting needles being confiscated as weaponry. There’s no way I could stay calm if the TSA made me dispose of a project well under way with the argument that my slightly pointy wooden sticks were sufficient to bring down a plane.

I would be livid, and, deprived of my project, I might also be bored.

I’m a pretty creative thinker, but I find it hard to imagine even the most overzealous security agent seeing wooden puzzle pieces as a credible threat. I’ll just avoid any puzzles with scenes of soldiers or battles, or overtly political themes, just in case.

Happy puzzling!

Wooden jigsaw puzzles: what was old is new again

I’ve mentioned this before: I love assembling jigsaw puzzles.

Some of my enjoyment of puzzles relates to fond memories of doing them with my mother when I was growing up.

Another element is the sense of well-being I get from assembling all kinds of things. I also like putting together furniture from IKEA, and building Lego sets.

There’s a reason I worked in software quality assurance (QA) for a number of years. I get satisfaction from methodically completing a series of steps, confirming every expectation has been met. I’m weird like that.

So one of my favorite pastimes is completing a jigsaw puzzle.

After almost forty years of doing puzzles, I was amazed to discover a new frontier in this relatively straightforward hobby.

The wooden jigsaw puzzle difference

wooden jigsaw puzzlesI started collecting wooden jigsaw puzzles. Continue reading