20-07-03 Social Distancing Mask sign 6 Roland.jpg

Valley jurisdictions—including Ketchum, pictured here—plan to discuss making masks mandatory this week.

As some states and counties step back towards closure with strict measures to combat recent upticks in COVID-19 cases, Blaine County continues to welcome visitors since entering the phased reopening plan that state officials created, with business owners and local establishments implementing their own measures to mitigate the risk of spreading coronavirus.

The use of masks, social distancing and regular hand washing continue to be the most effective ways to mitigate the risk of spreading or contracting the novel virus, according to local experts, including St. Luke’s Wood River emergency department physician Dr. Brock Bemis.

Bemis himself contracted the virus in mid-March but has fully recovered and returned to work. While at the hospital, Bemis, who has asthma, wears a mask for his entire shift—a gesture that he says not only protects him but protects those around him.

“Any barrier is better than no barrier,” he said.

That sentiment has been reiterated by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both of which recommend some sort of face covering—whether that be a buff, a bandana or a cloth facemask—to “provide an extra layer to help prevent the respiratory droplets from traveling in the air and onto other people,” as the CDC’s website puts it.

The CDC recommends masks for everyone, except children under 2 and those unable to remove the mask without assistance, such as someone with a severe disability. Bemis said those exceptions are both due to communication: A child under 2 may not be able to communicate if he or she is having trouble behind the mask, whether that be trouble breathing or possibly choking on something. The same can be said for someone with a severe disability.

For the most part, though, Bemis says anyone entering a building should wear a mask for their own protection and for the protection of others.

There are no risks to wearing a mask for anyone outside of the above-listed exclusion groups, Dr. Terry O’Connor, St. Luke’s Wood River emergency room physician and medical director for the Blaine County Ambulance District, told the Express. Research shows that a mask helps both to contain droplets from the wearer’s mouth and inhibits people from touching their faces and transferring whatever germs they may have on their hands to their mouth or nose. Countries that have socially accepted wearing masks, such those in Asia, have managed the virus’s spread better than those who have not universally accepted the benefits of wearing a mask, O’Connor said.

O’Connor pointed to one case study of a man who was infected and flew from Wuhan, China, to Ontario, Canada, with a mask on the entire time. No other passengers on the plane were infected by the mask-wearer. Other research found that family members who wear masks before symptoms appear have an 80 percent decreased risk of spreading the disease to other household members. That is particularly helpful for families who may have one member in the household who is immunocompromised or at high risk.

While N-95 masks—95 indicating the percentage of particles the mask blocks—are the most protective face covering, they continue to be in short supply. In order to keep N-95s in stock for health-care workers, the general public is not encouraged to wear them. Regardless, anything that covers one’s face is considered a good option to not wearing a mask at all. That’s particularly true for this coronavirus, which often travels undetected. In some cases, up to 40 percent of a population can carry the virus without symptoms, O’Connor said, citing studies done in Iceland and Italy, as well as on cruise ships and naval vessels.

That said, N-95 masks that have a filter that makes it easier for the wearer to breath do not protect the general public. That’s because the filter only protects the air coming into the mask, not the air going out—potentially leaving those around the mask-wearer vulnerable if the wearer is contagious. If anything, Bemis said, people should be extremely cautious around people wearing N-95 masks with filters.

The ramifications of not wearing a mask could be detrimental, not just to individuals or those they may infect but to the economy as well.

“Honestly, if we don’t do this, we’re going to get shut down again,” Bemis said.

O’Connor reiterated the sentiment, adding that there is a lot of value in “social modeling” by locals for visitors to see that this is a community that strongly encourages wearing masks to protect themselves and those around them.

Currently, most restaurants and businesses in Blaine County ask that customers and clients wear a mask inside the facility. Those include gyms like the YMCA, which has a strict policy of hand washing, temperature checks and a mandatory policy that requires people to wear a mask the entire time they are in the building.

“If you have been keeping track of the new positive COVID-19 cases in Idaho, you already know what happens if we become complacent and cavalier about social distancing and wearing masks,” Blaine County Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said in a statement shared via Facebook last week.

In Ketchum, Mayor Neil Bradshaw told the City Council on Friday that he may be asking for a special meeting to consider a resolution stating the city’s strong stance on wearing masks. Councilwoman Amanda Breen suggested that the discussion also include whether masks should be mandated. As of Tuesday, no meeting had been set for this week.

Last week, the Central Health District reversed Ada County from Stage 4 to Stage 3 of the governor’s plan to reopen Idaho after a cluster of positive COVID-19 cases were found to be connected to a group of 10 contagious people who went to a series of bars in downtown Boise. Locally, Bemis said there has been at least one case of a young healthy person who tested positive for the virus after the individual had shared a rental with several friends. The person had gone to several establishments in the county without realizing they had the virus, and was only tested because they were going into the hospital for a separate medical procedure.

Bemis is puzzled as to why wearing or not wearing a mask has become politicized, he told the Express, noting that the coronavirus does not discriminate by political party affiliation. According to Bemis, cloth face coverings block up to 50 percent of the virus, meaning that by wearing a mask of some sort, the risk of spreading or contracting the virus is reduced by 50 percent.

“It’s a low ask,” O’Connor said, in comparison to the county’s reverting back to a shelter-in-place order. “Would you rather isolate your face or your whole body?”

Though residents may be tired of living this new lifestyle, they should consider how health-care workers feel four months into the pandemic, O’Connor said.

“How much longer will frontline workers ‘jump on the grenade’?” he asked, quoting his predecessor, Dr. Keith Sivertson. Statewide, 491 health-care workers have contracted the virus, according to the state’s coronavirus website. According to O’Connor, health-care workers are tired of seeing community members without masks, especially when they go into stores where only about half the people are wearing them even as case numbers continue to rise.

Ideally, cloth masks should be washed between every use, but more importantly, hands should be washed before and after putting on or taking off a mask. Coverings should be removed from behind the head or ears rather than from the facial coverage area. For example, a bandana should be removed from the back to the front, and masks with elastic or fabric that goes around the ears should be removed from the ear, not from the mouth area. In addition, masks or other face coverings should cover both the mouth and the nose to best protect against inhaling or exhaling potentially dangerous droplets.

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