Masks have been in the news a lot lately, and not the Halloween or bank robber variety.
Masks seem to have become a hot topic nationally. Wearing a face mask during the coronavirus pandemic appears to be the subject of much confusion and misinformation everywhere. So, what is the Lincoln perspective?
From the city’s public health department to Lincoln’s medical community, the opinion seems pretty unified. In their information campaigns that include striking logos, the sentiment is much the same: It’s an essential part of a strategy (along with hand-washing and social distancing) to help stop the spread of the virus.
Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird (who sports a face mask in her Facebook photo) and her interim director of health cautioned “… thorough hand-washing, physical distancing and face masks are absolutely critical …”
Dr. William Johnson, pulmonologist with Bryan Health, as part of Bryan’s virus briefings, declared that when we all wear masks “there is tremendous safety,” adding that the “absolute key is the asymptomatic carrier.”
The Lancaster County Medical Society, in cooperation with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, distributed flyers by Johnson that demonstrated the effectiveness of wearing masks to lower the risk of transmission.
The Nebraska Medical Association recently posted on its Facebook page, “The physician members of the Nebraska Medical Association encourage EVERYONE to wear a mask in all public spaces. This will keep you from unknowingly transmitting the virus.”
Lincoln physicians Dr. Bob Rauner, president of Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln, and Dr. Don Rice of the Urgent Care Clinic of Lincoln, have both explained the importance of wearing face masks as part of a series of informational COVID-19 videos each produced. Rauner’s series of videos has attracted tens of thousands of views. Likewise, Rice’s flyer, “We Are a Socially Responsible Nebraska Business” touting “No mask, no service, we care about our customers and staff” has seen a similar response on Facebook.
Despite all of this support, the “when, where, how and why” of wearing a mask still confuses people. Rauner, who also has a master’s degree in public health, answers some of the frequently asked questions and tackles some of the myths surrounding face masks:
When should I wear a mask? Wear one if you are: 1) in settings with multiple people, especially indoors (e.g. a grocery store); 2) around medically vulnerable people and seniors; and 3) outdoors around crowds (e.g. a farmers’ market).
What kind of mask should I wear? Can I reuse a mask? Out in the community, a standard cloth face mask is enough. You can use it repeatedly, but should wash it at least weekly or more frequently if you wear it a lot. You can also wear a bandana or a scarf as long as it covers your mouth and nose, and they are laundered often as well.
How much protection does a mask provide me? Wearing a mask partially protects you, but not completely. Its main effect is to prevent your respiratory droplets from spreading and infecting others if you are infectious – which you can be without knowing it. It also helps remind you not to touch your face. If everyone wears a mask in the recommended circumstances, the risk of spread is very low.
If I wear a mask, do I need to social distance by 6 feet? Yes. Think of it as multiple layers of protection. No layer is 100% effective, but adding layers improves how effective it is.
Can I go to a social gathering with people from outside my household or visit with vulnerable people as long as I wear a mask? Yes, as long as you are also washing your hands, not touching, and keeping your 6-foot distance. Outside is also safer than inside.
If masks are so effective, why aren’t they required during flu season? Other countries do use them regularly (e.g., Japan), so maybe we should consider doing the same. Also, influenza is not as dangerous as coronavirus. The infection fatality rate for coronavirus is 10 to 20 times worse than influenza.
Only vulnerable people need to wear masks. All people need to consider wearing a mask. The main reason to wear a mask is so that you don’t spread the virus to vulnerable populations. From 20-30% of people with coronavirus won’t have symptoms, so they won’t know if they are infectious. Also, people are infectious 2-3 days before they have symptoms when they could be spreading coronavirus to others.
Masks don’t really protect you unless they are the N95 or surgical masks. N95 masks and surgical masks are more protective, but for community-level use, a cloth mask is enough to decrease spread dramatically.
Wearing a mask weakens your immune system. There is no evidence that a mask would weaken your immune system. Washable cloth masks have been used for more than 100 years.
Wearing a mask reduces oxygen levels and increases carbon dioxide toxicity. A breathable cloth mask would not impede oxygen diffusion enough to make a difference. Carbon dioxide levels would only be affected in someone who already had severe lung disease and is on the edge as far as carbon dioxide toxicity.
Wearing a mask violates my civil rights. You have freedom of speech, too, but you can’t yell “fire” for fun in a crowded movie theater. The main reason to wear a mask is to protect others, as you may be an asymptomatic carrier or infected but not yet experiencing symptoms. Remember the quote, “Your freedom to act ends at the tip of my nose.” In this case, your freedom to act does not include spreading coronavirus to others and potentially killing them.
Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln (HealthyLincoln.org) and LNKTV Health (LNKTVhealth.lincoln.ne.gov) bring you Health and the City, a monthly column that examines relevant community health issues and spotlights the local organizations that impact community wellness. Direct questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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