The 95 Percent Masking Fallacy: Your Luck WILL Run Out

“I mask 95% of the time in public indoors…”

This isn’t new, but this “95% masking” rationalization seems to have become more of a thing lately, especially with COVID influencers…or minimizers. There are also other variations, like “masking when feasible.” While these folks would have you believe that this is a means of risk reduction or compromise (as if anyone’s figured out a way to compromise with a virus), it’s in fact nothing more than gambling with your life and health…and that of others. At some point, your luck is going to run out.

Social media is full of folks who say they wore their masks “most of the time” or “95% of the time” or similar, but then got to the “find out” part of that remaining 5% or so. Sure, there are plenty who are also claiming that they don’t mask at all, or only X%, or whatever, and haven’t gotten it. That may well be true, but just because your number hasn’t come up yet while you’re out YOLOing doesn’t mean it won’t. Or you could’ve been asymptomatic and your body is now damaged, with you unknowingly looking at having a stroke, heart attack, or pulmonary embolism right around the corner. Or heck, passing it on to someone else who gets sick and dies. But most folks seem to have ditched the whole moral burden of protecting one another at this point. They may (or may not) voice platitudes, but inside they’re saying, “Fuck ‘em.” Fine human beings, these.

Also, while this is partly speculation and partly based on anecdotes, I submit that the majority of the behaviors contained in that 5% are high risk ones. Sure, you wore your mask at the office, saving up your COVID Lucky Points™️ to use for your office partaaaayyy sans mask. And – oh, shit! – you got COVID. Or you were on the train traveling and wore your mask most of the time while you were out of your cabin…except when you had it off to eat in the dining car with the YOLOs. And – oh, shit! – you got COVID. Or maybe you took a business trip, and you were super good, wearing your mask everywhere except to that restaurant you just love at your regular transit airport. And – oh, shit! – you got COVID. The list goes on.

I also want to make something abundantly clear here: I’m not talking about folks who made an honest mistake under pressure and literally forgot their mask when normally they would’ve worn it. I’m talking about anyone, especially the blue check 95% legit and 5% minimizer types, who have a philosophy of wearing a mask “95% of the time” so they feel justified in doing whatever the hell they want in that remaining 5%.

I also want to make clear that this isn’t a virtue thing. I am NOT virtuous (if my mom were still around, you could’ve asked her about that), but I believe in protecting myself, protecting my family, and protecting others. My mask is part of my wardrobe: when I go to work or anywhere indoors, my mask is on, just like my pants. Even if I’m outdoors and I’m close to people or there are a bunch, that mask is on. But if I’m off away from folks or somewhere the air hasn’t been breathed into by a potential COVID zombie, it comes off (note: this is generally not the case for immunocompromised folks, who have a much higher threshold to keep themselves safe). It’s not that hard to do. It’s really not. And it MATTERS. It can literally save lives, perhaps including your own.

Masking when feasible…

So, let’s start with the “masking when feasible” fallacy, which in this case comes to us courtesy of former Surgeon General of the United States of America and Non-Super Crazy HazMat Suit Guy Jerome Adams:

First, let’s highlight three relevant facts. 1) Adams is indeed an MD, having attended the Indiana University School of Medicine (I feel this is important to distinguish him from people like Rand Paul). 2) However, he is also not an infectious disease expert, as his specialty and board certification is in anesthesiology. So, he’s certainly qualified to speak about anesthesiology, but isn’t any more qualified to expertly opine on infectious disease or mitigations than my GP, who slathers on hand sanitizer but doesn’t wear a mask when seeing his patients. In other words, he’s not at all qualified. 3) Despite his lack of qualification to speak authoritatively on the topic, he’s a blue check influencer with a substantial following. So, like many of these folks, he can give bad advice to a lot of people all at once (although he hasn’t always done this; in the past, Adams has been an advocate for some very sensible things). It’s much more efficient that way.

Now, let’s take a look at three rather flaming phrases in his tweet, with the second one first:

“…and mask when feasible.”

Mask when feasible? Seriously, I’m not even sure what that’s supposed to mean. I’ve been masking since late March 2020 – progressing through cloth, surgical, KN95, N95, and elastomeric P100, all day at work, any time out in public, etc. – and I can’t recall an instance where masking wasn’t feasible. If I’m around other people, my mask is on. Period. It’s like putting on your clothes, and we should treat it like it’s part of our attire. Leaving it off should be like leaving your pants, skirt, dress, etc., off. But if I go to work without my pants on (and I actually threatened to do that at work to prove a point not long after the pandemic started), the worst that’ll happen is I’ll temporarily blind my managers and coworkers who didn’t turn away quickly enough. If I go to work without my mask on, the consequences could be far more severe. Can masking (with an N95 or P100, which are the only things you should be wearing now) be uncomfortable? Sure, especially after wearing my elastomeric P100 for hours at a time. But I have yet to encounter a situation where it’s not feasible. You just put the thing on.

Now let’s look at the Oxford definition of feasible:

“Possible to do easily or conveniently.”

Ahhh, okay! Now I understand: Adams really means, “…and mask when convenient/easy.” That clarifies things a bit. Heaven forbid you should wear a mask or do whatever else to protect yourself and others, particularly immunocompromised folks,  any time other than when it’s feasible!

I have to confess the first thing I thought of when I saw Adams’s tweet was this infamous quote from CDC Director Walensky:

“I know people are tired. The scarlet letter of this pandemic is the mask. It may be painless, it may be easy, but it’s inconvenient, it’s annoying, and it reminds us that we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”

Sidebar: I always feel compelled to add, “Hang on: we ARE in the middle of a pandemic (still), no mater what Biden says!”

But didn’t SHE say [wearing] the mask is easy? Oh, wait, we have a conflict here, because she also said it was inconvenient, so Adams clearly decided to run with that bit. I mean, if something is easy but inconvenient, then it’s really just inconvenient, right? But I digress.

So, he’s only going to mask when it’s feasible/easy/convenient, which quite likely puts him well below the 95% threshold I’m supposed to be writing about. He says he eats/gathers outside when he can (if it’s feasible). But if he can’t, then I would conclude from his tweet here that it would likely be too inconvenient for him to wear a mask.

Let’s move on to flaming phrase number two:

“And while my luck WILL run out, I’ve avoided multiple infections with COVID [after repeated exposures].”

This one really gets me. First off, how do you know you’ve avoided infection? Unless you’re routinely doing PCR tests, you could have had COVID (even multiple times, although that seems unlikely without having at least one get to you) and been asymptomatic. Which means you also could’ve passed it on to God knows how many people without either you or them knowing at the time. Not so sure I’d put that on your resume, there, Admiral Adams.

Now, let’s change that phrase up a bit. How about, “And while my luck WILL run out, I’ve avoided being electrocuted by sticking a metal fork into a wall socket multiple times.” Or maybe, “And while my luck WILL run out, I’ve avoided getting hit by the bus multiple times when crossing the street blindfolded.”

Adams is really saying here, “I know – I’m certain – that my luck’s going to run out, but by God I’m going to keep grabbing that third rail because I feel like it, because I want to.” Come on, man! If you’re certain that at some point a particular behavior(s) is going to leave you stricken with a disease that could harm, disable, or kill you (or your loved ones or other folks), why on Earth would you keep doing it, especially when it’s so easy not to? Oh, right: because you want to do it, screw the consequences, and screw that “do no harm” oath thing. 5% YOLO – game on!

My friend, this is just straight-up addicted gambler stuff here. And again, let me point out that this guy is a doctor and a former Surgeon General of the United States of America spouting this tripe.

And now for flaming phrase number three:

It’s not lockdowns vs. let er rip.🤔

This minimizer code phrase is such ridiculous garbage that it’s hard to credit, even from Adams. Wearing a mask isn’t a lockdown. Requiring that masks be worn isn’t a lockdown. As even Walensky said, masking is painless and easy.

What bollocks.

I mask 95% of the time…

Now let’s get to a recent “95 percenter,” our friend Gregg Gonsalves, an associate professor at Yale School of Public Health, who was featured in the COVID Abstinence Rooster post. Unlike Adams, Gonsalves IS supposed to be an expert on infectious diseases. My point here isn’t to pick (more) on Gonsalves specifically, but what he says here is a perfect example of the addicted gambler schtick that seems to be propagating among influencers/minimizers, especially among people who really should know better. And in the case of people like Gregg, in a way it’s more insidious, because 95% of the time they’re very credible, but then the have a 5% ego storm. But I again digress. Here we go:

“I mask 95% of the time in public indoors, I use rapid tests to manage risk further…”

Okay, Gregg, hold up here: you use rapid tests to manage risk further? As we’ll see shortly, taking rapid tests will have zero direct impact on the specific risk associated with a particular high risk behavior. Also, he should know that rapid tests (rapid antigen tests – RATs) are notorious for false negatives, where the test shows (-) when in fact you’re (+). In case you were wondering, this is very bad. It also isn’t new: this has been public knowledge since Abbot RATs were first used in the Trump White House in 2020. So that’s a poor mitigation right off the bat, and instead of touting it you should be warning people about the limitations of these tests.

What about that other 5%? Well, we know he occasionally dines indoors (unmasked, obviously – hard to get food or drink through an N95 or P100), from the tweet by Prof. Gavin Yamey that was the catalyst for the whole “COVID abstinence rooster” thing (where THREE infectious disease experts were doing the “5% YOLO”), and I submit it’s more than likely he does other things that are high risk to account for the rest of that 5%:

“But that’s okay,” you say (or, “Don’t be a judgmental asshole,” which I wouldn’t be, except guys like this are putting people in harm’s way), especially if you go through his rationale or are a fan of I Can Rationalize My Way Into Doing Anything I Want Dr. Bob Wachter, “he’s managing risk by staying safe in other ways and the rest of the time so he can eat indoors safely. It all averages out.”

And thus I say unto you: poppycock.

Let’s set aside any speculation on how often Gregg or anyone else engages in any particular high risk behavior and focus on this: it doesn’t matter a whit how “good” you are the rest of the time. As soon as you drop your mask in a high risk setting, you’re playing COVID roulette, gambling every time that you’re not going to lose. And the kicker with this game is that you actually never win anything; the only thing you can do is eventually lose. And you’ll be betting on that spinning wheel every…single…time you engage in a high risk activity. How else or how often you mitigate outside of that high risk activity is absolutely meaningless, as is succinctly illustrated here:

“…you don’t have evenly distributed risk over time…”

That, right there. Let’s get back to the COVID roulette scenario. Let’s say, just for simplicity and funsies, that your risk of getting COVID for a given high risk behavior (whatever it may be; there are of course tons of variables that would determine the actual risk) is 1 in 10. So every time you engage in that behavior, you have a 1 in 10 chance of getting infected. And if you get infected, then you get to spin the Wheel of Misfortune to see if you get long COVID (which you can figure is roughly 1 in 5 to 1 in 3 – pretty crappy odds, there), decrease your life expectancy, suffer some sudden onset syndrome or death later on down the line, or win the BIG prize and get some combination thereof. Keep spinning that COVID roulette wheel and, as Adams said, your luck WILL run out: I’ll leave it to the statisticians, but your total risk increases every time you spin the wheel – it doesn’t remain 1 in 10. Also, luck is great, but it’s a piss-poor pandemic mitigation strategy.

To rephrase: you can’t mange COVID exposure risk like saving up leave to splurge on a vacation, or rollover minutes on your phone plan. And these 95-percent guys are doing the worst thing in most instances, spending that “5%” in high-risk settings, and telling you that’s okay if you’re “good” the rest of the time. It. Is. Not.

And to reiterate, this 95% schtick has real-world impact on people, particularly the immunocompromised. To paraphrase one individual, she has to spend 95% of her time alone because going out in the world with the 95-percenters and YOLOs – who don’t give a damn if she or others like her live or die (protecting them just isn’t feasible) – would kill her.

Don’t play COVID Roulette – the game is rigged

Just like in gambling, unless you’re a world class card shark or James Bond, at the end of the day the house is going to win and you’re going to lose. The smart play is not to play. As Walensky said, masking is easy and painless (if sometimes annoying and uncomfortable). Make your N95 or P100 part of your wardrobe and keep it on any time you’re around other people and do not take it off! You love that osso buco? Get it to go or have it delivered. Famished at an airport? Grab some food and find a place with as few people as possible and eat as fast as you can: don’t breathe contaminated air. That’s the simplest and safest strategy in lieu of the many other things we could and should be doing (filtration, ventilation, testing (with PCR!), tracing, etc., etc.) to combat this virus: in that world in some parallel universe we wouldn’t have to wear our masks so much, and could eventually quash this virus for good. Until then, keep your mask on and steer clear of the COVID casino, both to protect yourself and to be a decent human being toward those you could easily kill through nothing more than sheer selfishness.

The 95 Percent Masking Fallacy: Your Luck WILL Run Out

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