Newsflash: mask mandates may have been useless in preventing the spread of coronavirus variants.  As Faye Flam writes, most of the masks people wore – loose fitting cloth or paper – didn’t effectively deter infection. Only high-grade N95 masks (properly fitted and universally worn) could do so.

And good luck getting people to do that. But here’s another wrinkle:

Several studies have shown that the louder someone talks, the more particles they expel. Other studies show prolonged exposure to others indoors is much riskier than fleeting exposures.

All those factors may explain why the states with mask mandates haven’t fared significantly better than the 35 states that didn’t impose them during the omicron wave. Rhode Island, where I live, has had a mask mandate since mid-December; nonetheless, we saw our January surge rise far higher than any other state. There’s little evidence that mask mandates are the primary reason the pandemic waves eventually fall — though much of the outrage over lifting mandates is based on that assumption. Many experts acknowledge that the rise and fall of waves is a bit of a mystery…

There’s no question that masking all the time, with the highest-quality mask on the market, will offer all kinds of protection from a variety of airborne diseases.

But plenty of people either can’t get such masks, won’t wear them correctly, or will refuse to mask at all. As for mandates…they may work for brief periods. But months or years-long requirements? Aside from germ-o-phobes, the bulk of people will stop wearing masks as soon as possible.

The challenge for the next pandemic (and yes, there will be one, someday) is getting the preventatives right…and keeping them realistic, temporary, and highly targeted.