PLAGUE MASKS: WE'VE COME A LONG WAY

The bubonic plague, the “Great Pestilence”, “Black Death”, and the “Black Plague” -from here on out, we’ll just call it “the plague”- was the most devastating pandemic known to human history. The plague ravaged Europe and Asia over the course of almost 40 years. Numbers vary between historians, but it is generally believed that it wiped out anywhere from 20 – 200 million people in the mid-fourteenth century.

When we think of the plague, we think of other eradicable diseases, such as polio, measles, mumps, smallpox, and Rinderpest. But it turns out, the plague never left us. Just recently, a case surfaced in August in the United States! Perfect timing for the rollercoaster year that 2020 has been, yes?  

The plague was ‘treated’ by methods ranging from dangerous practices such as bloodletting -by using leeches; that is doubly disturbing!- to unsanitary methods such as boil-lancing.  Superstitious activities were also used to keep the plague away such bathing in rosewater or vinegar. 'Plague doctors' believed that the disease was passed along by "bad air". They thus filled their long-beaked masks with more than 55 herbs and other items such as viper flesh powder.

However, the items we call “Plague Masks” were not actually invented until the 17th century. The costume is usually credited to Charles de Lorme, a physician in the 1600s, who catered to European royals and nobility such as King Louis XIII and the (in?)famous De Medici clan.

Thankfully, today, we understand the importance of covering our mouths as we cough or sneeze. This year, millions of people are singing “Happy Birthday” in their heads while washing their hands (as it’s the perfect song for the 20 second hand-washing rule). We are pulling out our bottles of sanitizer we carry in purses, cars, pockets, and backpacks during each trip into the world and touch items. We are better equipped with knowledge and science to handle this pandemic than the Medieval population. 

Luckily, today, we do not have to witness the horror of going to see doctors wearing these contraptions. We’ve developed masks that, according to the Director for the CDC, Dr. Robert Redfield, may protect us better than a vaccine. In his own words, “I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine," he added. "Because the immunogenicity may be 70 percent and if I don't get an immune response, the vaccine's not going to protect me. This face mask will."

The plague, as mentioned above, never full went away and would resurface throughout history. I’m obviously no doctor, scientist, or an epidemiologist, but the more I read and dig into this, the more I believe that COVID will be with us for a while. I also believe, even after we get a vaccine for COVID, that wearing masks will continue to protect us from passing on colds, flus, and other airborne sicknesses. I’m just glad I don’t have to walk around wearing this.