A COVID silver lining? Mask use in Korea reveals hearing loss

Photo credit: Jens-Olaf Walter licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report from The Korea Biomedical Review notes that mask wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic is making many Koreans recognize that they have hearing loss. We all use facial expressions and gestures to help us understand what others are saying, and many people unconsciously lip read as well. But when we are wearing masks, awareness of facial expression is limited to the eyes and forehead and it’s impossible to lip read, so we are left dependent only on our hearing to understand what others are saying.

South Korea had an effective government response to the COVID-19 pandemic, involving universal mask wearing, social distancing, an early testing program, and effective contact tracing with isolation of infected individuals. Thanks to these efforts, according to WorldOMeter South Korea has had only 667 cases of COVID-19 per million population and only 10 deaths per million population.

In contrast, in the U.S., the lack of an effective national response has led to 41,444 cases per million and 823 deaths per million.

To use absolute numbers, which may be easier for some to understand, the population of South Korea is approximately 51 million and that of the United States 330 million. Using an adjustment factor of 7, which actually overstates the adjustment for the respective population sizes, South Korea has had 34,652 cases of COVID-19 and 526 deaths. If South Korea had as many people as the United States, it would have had 242,564 cases of COVID-19, and 3682 deaths. The U.S. has unfortunately had almost 14 million cases and almost 275,000 deaths. The difference in case and death numbers is due to almost universal mask wearing in South Korea.

But universal mask wearing in South Korea made it hard for those with hearing loss to understand what others were saying, because they were deprived of the visual cues associated with speech.

And according to Prof. Moon Il-jung in the Otorhinolaryngology Department at Samsung Medical Center, more patients are coming to the hospital to receive hearing tests, with hearing aids prescribed for those who have hearing loss.

And that may be a rare silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

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