Michael Osterholm wears a cloth mask when he goes outside. He supports their use and believes they may help slow the spread of tide of the coronavirus. But his organization, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, or CIDRAP, has dealt with a deluge of hate mail recently from people who believe it doesn’t believe in them enough. Some have even accused Osterholm and others of contributing to the “death of thousands of humans”—something he has a hard time understanding.
“I’m on a team that’s working on a washable N95 mask that could be used up to 300 times. CIDRAP is finishing a study showing that 26 percent of people aren’t covering their noses when they use masks and encouraging them to do so. I wear a mask when I have to go out,” Osterholm said. “I’m not sure how any of that is anti-mask.”
The root issue is that Osterholm’s scientific views do not fit neatly into one of the main debates of the day: Are masks good or bad? Early on, there was a thought that COVID-19 was transmitted primarily through larger droplets from coughs and sneezes, which cloth masks could catch. But many scientists now believe smaller particles known as aerosols also play a significant role in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Osterholm and others at CIDRAP have long studied how well different types of masks filter such aerosols, which are emitted when people exhale, be it through breathing, talking, or singing. And while Osterholm believes cloth masks may reduce the spread of the coronavirus, he is concerned that some have overstated their ability to do so.
This places Osterholm and CIDRAP at the center of a debate that increasingly doesn’t have one anymore. “I seem to be somewhere in the middle on this issue,” he said, “but somehow that’s considered an extreme position.” (continued)