Blaine County has already proven there are superheroes among us—and not just the frontline workers. In March we were hit hard by COVID-19 and you did the right thing. We flattened the curve.
It’s now tempting to want to wish this virus away, but the latest news is hard to ignore. Coronavirus is still in Idaho. It’s frustrating. It also gets confusing as recommendations change, but one thing will not change: We will only make recommendations based on the best data and latest science. And the evidence now leads us to urge people to wear a mask.
Think of why a surgeon wears a mask during a procedure. It is to protect the patient from possible infection. This has been best practice for decades, because when you speak, you not only send out your message, you send out droplets that could contain virus. And that virus, riding in a droplet, can stay in the air and reach others. Speaking loudly or singing can send more droplets farther into the air. COVID-19 can stay in the air for hours in enclosed spaces, making it even more important to limit the amount we are potentially exhaling. Recent studies show simple cloth masks can block droplets from making it into the air out there.
How often are you sure you caught that cold from the person sitting near you, sneezing or coughing? That instinct is misleading when it comes to this novel disease. We now know that about 40 to 50 percent of people with COVID are infectious before they show any symptoms. Wearing a mask only when exhibiting symptoms isn’t enough to prevent spread of this disease.
Data are also indicating that wearing a mask does offer the wearer protection as well, particularly when proper techniques are used. So, here’s some practical advice.
Wear a mask when you cannot maintain physical distance of 6 feet or may encounter others unexpectedly, such as in a store, at the doctor’s office, on public transportation or if you are a frontline worker.
Masks should cover the face from the bridge of your nose to under your chin. It should be loose fitting but still secure enough to stay in place. Make sure you can talk with your mask on and that it doesn’t irritate you, so you are not tempted to touch it or pull it out of place, which could put you at risk from touching your face or limit its effectiveness.
Children under 2 or anyone who cannot take a mask off themselves should not wear a mask.
Masks should be put on and taken off from the loops behind the ears or by untying, bottom ties first. Wash hands or use hand sanitizer before and after.
Do not touch the front of the mask! Pulling the mask down from the front may cause you to come in contact with any droplets or aerosols that the mask collected.
If you are using a cloth mask or bandana, wash between use using soap and hot water.
Masks with exhalation vents are not recommended. They allow for escape of droplets and aerosols, which means spreading the virus is still possible.
Cloth masks and surgical masks do not cause carbon dioxide buildup or suffocation.
Countries and cities that became serious about masking recovered quicker from COVID. They enjoyed lower infection rates than those that did not. Adding social distancing and good hygiene lowered it even more!
A recent review of available evidence by a consortium of experts around the county showed that even if only 50 percent of the pathogens are blocked by a mask and 50 percent of the population wears a mask, it can still reduce transmission substantially, from one person giving it to 2.4 people on average to one person giving it to 1.35 on average. Those fewer infections mean fewer hospital visits and more lives saved. If even more people mask up, the transmission rate can fall to below one and the virus will stop spreading.
Masks are inexpensive and relatively easy to obtain; they are truly a simple measure that can make a tremendous difference in the health of our community and our economy. It’s a minor inconvenience compared to being on a ventilator or losing lives and livelihoods. Perhaps protecting your elderly relative, your favorite coffee shop or your local economy is compelling enough to experience a little discomfort and awkwardness.
We mask up—often for 12-hour shifts. We do it happily, because it’s effective and we want to take good care of you. Whether on the streets or in the hospital, we can see the sadness, fear, uncertainty, gratitude and joy in your eyes. We also see your frustration and we are here to help. We are always learning and promise to give it to you straight. We know a mask isn’t a perfect tool. Nor is it a stand-alone measure. But it is a relatively easy one. It works. It helps.
Wearing a mask can make a difference, so we need more people to wear them and fast. You’ve already proven the power of community. Show our visitors our solidarity. Health, especially during an epidemic, is a form of public good in that everyone else’s health behaviors improve the health odds of everyone else. We can do good again.
Be a superhero and mask up!
Drs. Terry O’Connor, Malie Kopplin, Deb Robertson, Jim Torres, Brock Bemis, Keith Sivertson, Terry Ahern and Brent Russell are emergency physicians at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center.