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Professor who went viral for wearing a mask on a Zoom call explains his reasoning


Because it is 2022, our next guest went viral for wearing an N95 mask alone in his office during a Zoom meeting. As he wrote on Twitter, am I crazy? Am I virtue signaling? Am I fearmongering? Or is there some rationale to wear a mask in a private office? Let's discuss. We took Jon Levy up on that offer. He happens to be chair of the department of environmental health at Boston University's School of Public Health. Jon, welcome.

JON LEVY: Thank you. Hi.

PFEIFFER: At BU, where you work, wearing a mask is optional, but you were doing it anyway, even on a video call in virtual isolation. Why take that extreme level of precaution?

LEVY: Even though I was on a video call, obviously, I was in a physical space, which is my office, and it shares air with other offices and with the bathrooms that are just across the hall from my office. It's important, I think, to remember that COVID is transmitted through the air, and it can linger for a long time. As I mentioned on Twitter, you know, I have a spouse who treats COVID patients. I have kids who are in schools where masking is optional. And so I could be a source at any point in time to my department. And, of course, there are other people, students and faculty, who could be sources to me. And so wearing a mask protects me from others and protects others from me.

PFEIFFER: Someone screenshotted a picture of you in your mask and shared it with other people. And it sounds like there was some pretty extreme feedback. What kind of reactions did you get?

LEVY: So the the context was on a Zoom to discuss the potential need for more public health protections. And I think some people saw the fact that I was wearing a mask on the Zoom and thought that that was some sort of signal, an attempt to frighten people or virtue signal or just some sense that I was not approaching this in a fair-minded way. And so I think that, you know, the image was shared to sort of perhaps undermine my argument or say that I was, you know, going over the top with COVID.

PFEIFFER: You decided to respond with a thoughtful Twitter thread explaining your masking philosophy. What did you hope to accomplish with that?

LEVY: I really had a few goals. I wanted people to understand that COVID is mostly in the aerosol phase, which means very, very small particles that stay in the air for a long time. I also wanted to get across the very practical side of things that, you know, a good, high-quality mask is very effective and actually can be very comfortable and affordable as well. And there's not a lot of downside to wearing a mask in a setting like that if you have a good mask. I think the other thing I really wanted to try to get across, though, was more about the human side of things, not just the science side of things. And, you know, right now we should try to act with a little bit more grace and assume the best of people and assume that people who are wearing masks have very good reasons to do so. And, by the way, a good reason to do so is to simply say, I don't want to get COVID, and I don't want to give a coat to others.

PFEIFFER: We've reached a point in the pandemic where many people feel done with it, but other people are still quite concerned. And so maybe, inevitably, there's going to be some clashing of COVID philosophies. How do you think we learn to all get along in a situation like that and accept our decisions without ridiculing one another?

LEVY: I think my hope has been that we could get to a place where we think about masks or other public health protections as just simple tools to be used at some points and not to be used at others. That's not the same as a lockdown. We're not shutting down society. We're just taking a targeted measure to try to reduce transmission. And then when we get to a better place, the mask can come off.

PFEIFFER: Jon Levy is chair of the department of environmental health at Boston University's School of Public Health. Jon, thank you.

LEVY: Thank you.


Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Taylor Hutchison
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