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Guest View: Here's why hospital backs mandatory mask wearing


July 31, 2020

From a health care perspective, a mask ordinance is a good idea. Multiple studies have shown that wearing masks helps reduce transmission of Covid-19. There are many tools in our toolbelt to help us combat this virus. Examples of these tools are contact tracing, physical distancing, testing, and wearing masks. A vaccine will ultimately change everything in a big way, but that is still over the horizon.

Contact tracing has proved challenging in this case. The fact that so many of us are asymptomatic for so long while we are contagious makes it more difficult to backtrack and find everyone who comes into contact with an individual. Community transmission is also so widespread across so many areas that contact tracing’s effectiveness is lessened. It is a tool, but it will not stop the pandemic.

Physical distancing can absolutely help. We saw in March and April what a difference it made for people to maintain safe distances in their professional and personal lives. However, with the advent of warmer weather, people across the country are moving more and connecting with others more. It is difficult to imagine moving back to a regulatory approach in this area prohibiting people from being out and about again, unless circumstances climb out of control. This also affects people and businesses in a profound way, and our country is still dealing with the economic fallout of shutting down so much of our society. Physical distancing remains a tool in this battle, but we as a society could not and will not allow ourselves to universally isolate for the duration it would take to solve the problem.

Testing is an important element of tackling the pandemic. It would be more effective if there was adequate testing capacity available to ensure rapid results for anyone and everyone. In theory, we could mass-test communities, identifying in real time those who were infected. Those individuals could be isolated, which would severely interrupt the chain of transmission. It would also help health care providers treating patients to know right away if they were dealing with an infected patient, which affects various treatment protocols and use of precious protective equipment.

Unfortunately, the large numbers of cases around the country have led to a spike in testing, which in turn has caused the sporadic shortages of testing supplies and reagents to morph into an ongoing, serious shortage. This has increased turnaround times for these tests to unacceptable levels, limiting the usefulness of the test. In some cases, we are not receiving test results back until the patient has already recovered. Families are having to isolate for a week or more in case their loved one is infected, waiting for a test result. Testing will remain important throughout the duration of the pandemic, but it will not eliminate the virus.

With all of the problems we are having optimizing the other tools available to us, masking emerges as actually the easiest, best tool we currently have to control the spread of the virus. As an optional tool, it is effective, but only partially. Individuals who choose not to mask can be infected without knowing it, and they are highly likely to then spread the virus. We have all heard that a cloth covering offers only minimal protection to the person wearing it. It protects everyone else from that person. So a person choosing not to wear a mask is creating some increased personal risk, but much greater increased societal risk. It is because of that nuance of how this disease is transmitted that we cannot automatically count on everyone simply wearing a mask on their own accord.

The closest analogy I can think of relates to smoking. A person choosing to smoke is certainly causing self-harm. But we regulate smoking in public because of the harm and nuisance that it creates for everyone else. A masking ordinance would keep the public safer from contracting Covid-19. That is a fact backed up by research and studies. It will not, on its own, end the pandemic. But this has the opportunity to become the strongest defense our community deploys.

We do see Covid-19 in our community. We are treating patients on an outpatient and inpatient basis. We all understand how to deal with this disease much better now than we did a few months ago. We will get through this. But wearing masks will reduce the number of individuals who become infected, which has ripple effects for the families, friends, and employers of those individuals.

This column was excerpted with permission from a letter to Mayor Roger Maki and the Cloquet City Council from Community Memorial Hospital CEO Rick Breuer.


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