Mask study

A screenshot of the video published showing the mask model. 

As the coronavirus pandemic continues and the public seeks information regarding the effectiveness of mask wearing, a recent study by an Ithaca architecture firm offers a local perspective. Holt Architects published a study in conjunction with M/E Engineering on Aug. 5 that indicated wearing a mask does limit the spread when compared to not doing so. 

So far, Holt has released two videos of the study, both illustrating the efficacy of masks. The first video includes footage of the now-empty office and the simulation of a person infected with COVID-19 coughing three times over 10 minutes without a mask. In the second video, the same simulation occurs but with four coughs, and this time the person is wearing a mask. 

The difference is stark. In the first video, the person’s infectious cloud—colored blue, green, or red depending on the Human Infectious Dose percentage—disperses across the entirety of the office space. But the second video shows the same droplets remaining closer to the person’s work space, highlighting the mask’s effectiveness.

Steve Hugo, Principal at Holt, said the study was prompted by some employees’ interest in returning to the office space, located at 619 W State Street, and if they could sit at their desks unmasked. Holt executed the study of its office utilizing Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) technology to create simulations with M/E to predict the flow of fluid in the air within and around the office space.

Scott Reynolds, Manager of the Computer Aided Engineering Solutions (CAES) group at M/E, said the study provides a point of view to clear up the misinformation surrounding interactions during a pandemic, specifically how to social distance at work.

“We wanted to put some parameters on [the study] in terms of an office environment where you're there eight hours a day, either fully staffed and partially staffed and how the virus could spread within the office during that typical work day,” he said.

As divisive arguments over wearing masks continue, seen as either a personal choice or obligation to public health and safety, Hugo said he hopes the results of the study will push people to consider wearing a mask more often.

“A lot of people have read some of the guidelines to mean that if you're six feet apart from each other indoors, you don't have to wear a mask, and I think people are […] going to be rethinking that, and I think we're ahead of the curve with regard to that,” he said.

The masks in question were double or triple layer cloth masks covering both the mouth and nose. Rob Shutts, a Project Manager at Holt in Syracuse who coordinated contact between Holt and M/E, said choosing between cloth and N95 masks came down to the likelihood that employees would have better access to or prefer a cloth mask.

Shutts also said as architects and engineers, their methodology offers a different perspective on how studies like this can be performed. He said CFD technology is often used by architects on projects to evaluate how smoke spreads in a space in the event of a fire. With this study, the same approach and concept applies.

However, he said that because he is not a healthcare professional, he hopes this study will give insight into Holt’s operations specifically, not as a general rule for all businesses to replicate.

“It's gonna be different in different spaces, a school space versus an office with a different type of air distribution system,” Shutts said. “The point that we wanted to make is that it's part of our process to make informed decisions on what we do with our space and […] give people some thought that maybe it's worth looking at their own individual space.”

The third video, not yet published, will discuss Holt’s practices moving forward with potentially repopulating its office, though Shutts said he thinks Holt’s office in Syracuse will likely remain working virtually. Hugo said that currently some employees have started working in Holt’s office in Ithaca again, but because so few people decided to return, each employee has their own private room to work in.

“We wanted to share what knowledge or what information we had to [...] help our clients and other people,” Hugo said. “We're very open to engaging in conversations with anybody who's trying to continue brainstorming what the best solutions are to make spaces safer for people.”

(6) comments

Joe Glann

This is not a scientific study on the spread or prevention of viruses. This is simply misinformation. It is fun and useful for those interested in fluid mechanics. There have been lots of randomized controlled trial (RCT) studies over the past decade that prove, scientifically, that there is no statistical evidence which shows mask wearing prevents the spread of viruses. Mask wearing on a regular basis, on the contrary, compromises our immune system by restricting oxygen to our blood. I understand this is a very contrarian view currently which is unfortunate because this is about health and not an emotionally charged political debate.

Joe Glann

Meant to leave a link to an article with links to all the studies:

Maria Livingston

Thank you for this article. Just wanted readers to know that the third video, discussing HOLT's strategies for reducing airborne coronavirus transmission at their office was just posted:

Scott Reynolds

This is in response to Joe Glann's recent post. Our study was intended to add to the body of knowledge with respect to COVID19 and its potential airborne spread in indoor environments, specifically an existing office in Ithaca. It is generally known that there are 4 pillars to the spread of viruses: (1) Infectiousness of the virus, (2) the robustness or life span of the virus to live outside the body, (3) the concentration at which a host is exposed, and (4) the duration that the host is exposed for. CFD modeling addresses the last two pillars in a scientific way.

We have found that there are a great many discrepancies and conflicting opinions surrounding COVID19, but many common threads as well. In order to do a thorough job in any study, one needs to read historical peer reviewed articles that form the collective body of information in the field, especially if there's a lot of disagreement out there. A very common mistake is to look at summaries or abstracts of previous work without reading the actual papers in full. Another common oversight is to avoid scrutinizing the authors, at least on a first pass look. The final point that I would assert, is that you must make certain that you're comparing apples to apples.

Joe left a URL to an article written by Denis Rancourt entitled "Masks Don’t Work: A Review of Science Relevant to COVID-19 Social Policy." Dr. Rancourt listed seven articles that, in his opinion are "… key anchor points to the extensive scientific literature that establishes that wearing surgical masks and respirators (e.g., “N95”) does not reduce the risk of contracting a verified illness …"

After reading each of the articles in addition to his, I found that the newer articles written 8 or fewer years ago (5 of 7 articles) actually supported the use of masks as a significant preventative measure in limiting the spread of viruses. The real intent of those articles was to evaluate the efficacy of N95 masks to medical/surgical masks. Most indicated that there wasn't a significant difference between the two types of masks; they are both effective at reducing the risk of contracting SARS by about 80%, for example.

Most of the studies cited, lamented about the quality of the past work in the field. Many of the studies were too small, didn't account for other personal hygiene protocols, stated that mask compliance rates were between 10% and 80%, didn't evaluate exposure to others outside of the studies from family or friends, or had other poor controls, etc.

The studies older than 8 years (2 articles) stated that more work still needs to be done or that the studies were inconclusive.

The common threads between the works cited in Rancourt's paper are: (1) N95 and surgical masks are both effective at limiting the spread of airborne viruses, (2) There's not much difference between N95 and other masks in efficacy, and (3) masks are an integral part of a complete hygiene plan that also includes hand washing and surface disinfection.

So, Rancourt's article was (1) not really comparing apples to apples, (2) his references apparently were not well vetted because they proved the opposite opinion to his, and (3) there is a high likelihood that he is biased author based on his background.

I encourage all interested readers to search Rancourt's opinions, biases, and publications to decide for themselves if there is any validity to his article.

Michael Bryant

Good discussion for everyone to have. "Studies" (it's just another simulation/modelling effort and not science) is precisely why the general public is confused about science - actual scientific studies don't get published, meanwhile creators of useless simulations with breath droplets go straight to the media and everyone believes it's valid.

Univariate observational studies that don't even attempt to correct for confounders are garbage. "Studies" like these are all simulations and models, which are pure invention, and lab materials tests, which are irrelevant to real-world outcomes.

First off let's not pretend this study has any scientific validity- it does not. Let's also acknowledge that there have actually been very few studies using RCT's on the topic of masks as relates to viral contagions. However let us also acknowledge that EVERY SINGLE STUDY that did use RCT's came to the same conclusion that masks provide little to no benefits for preventing viral spread and did have indications for detrimental health outcomes when worn for extended periods. Do we really need studies to illustrate that disruptions (minor or major) of oxygen flow to the body for long periods will impact the body negatively?

The focus on just Rancourt's suppositions clouds the issue. To simply focus on Rancourt's "personal bias" is a classic logical fallacy. Simply debate the issue. The reality is that there are studies out there that use RCT's and they all say the same things. The reality is that the most recent "studies" on this issue, Mr. Holt's included, are all exercises in modelling. As a cautionary tale it was Neil Ferguson's modelling study, coming out of The Imperial College, which made such hysterical predictions which that created the rationale for lockdowns and that study has been proved wrong by substantial margins- not to mention Ferguson's track record of being wildly wrong on all occasions in the past.

Beyond this in any trial the burden must be on those proposing extreme measures, and forcing hundreds of millions to wear masks is certainly extreme, and any extreme measures need to be backed up by firm evidence. The data from alleged SARSCoV2, (if any of it is trustworthy, and that’s debatable, so say the least,) shows the people who are reported to suffer from it are nearly all very elderly and /or have serious pre existing health conditions, the vast majority of the public are not at any risk, and quite competent to get over it, and can even develop immunity from it.

So, that alone is sufficient to reject the mandatory measures of mask wearing, because the majority don’t need protection, their immune systems do that for them. The only scientific evidence for masks would be for those working closely with infectious patients, or those that have infectious symptoms and are visiting those who are ill, but that’s always been the case for all infections actually.

Maybe we get a long-term RCT study on the negative impacts of mask wearing? Certainly have lots of subjects right now. Couldn't we be getting tests done on oxygen levels in the blood after an 8 hour shift in a mask e.g.? What about levels of air quality measured right at point of inhale/exhale after a 4 hour stint in a cloth mask e.g.? Has anyone seen OSHA lately?

While were at ti and cancelling everything for the kids will we be getting long-term studies on increase rates of suicides in teens, increase rates of depression due to isolation, what an additional 6 hours a day in front of a screen ("Distance learning") does to their body chemistry? Maybe Holt Architect could fund those studies?

Mask are just a political weapon disguised as a public health concern.

Michael Bryant

Meant to say- "Studies like these..."

Welcome to the discussion.

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