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Home Opinion Editorial: The truth about masks

Editorial: The truth about masks

Let’s be real: Wearing a mask is probably not going to protect you from getting sick.

The critics and naysayers who have worked hard through social media to dissuade others from wearing masks, or at least to state their opposition to the possibility of mask mandates, are correct when they say that a face covering won’t stop tiny germs from getting through to the person wearing it. Studies back that up.

But, then, that’s not really the point of masks.

To understand the CDC’s recommendation that folks mask up when they’re in the presence of others is to understand why doctors and nurses wear masks in sterile environments. They’re not wearing masks and gloves because they’re worried that you — the patient, who is in the hospital to have your tonsils taken out or for a hysterectomy — might be carrying a deadly contagion that could infect them. They’re wearing those items to avoid exposing you — the patient, who is already being compromised by an invasive medical procedure — to something that they might be unaware that they’re carrying.

Those surgeons and their medical teams, in other words, aren’t wearing masks for them. They’re wearing them for you.

That’s the premise behind the nearly universal recommendations that masks be worn during the coronavirus pandemic. Wearing them isn’t so much about protecting yourself, as it is about protecting those you’re around. And, in that light, they’re actually quite effective. Studies back that up, too.

Multiple studies have found that wearing masks can reduce the transmission of Covid-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, by up to 85%.

So when someone posts a picture on Facebook of mask packaging that carries the disclaimer, “This product is not a respirator and will not provide any protection against Covid-19 (coronavirus) or other viruses or contaminants,” remember that context is important.

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The reason the mask manufacturers include that disclaimer is two-fold. One is because we live in a lawsuit-happy society, where “Don’t try this at home” is a standard disclaimer for a variety of television advertisements and “Do not eat this” is imprinted on packages of drying agent placed in boxes of electronics and other sensitive materials for the purpose of wicking up moisture.The second is that — unlike the N95 medical-grade masks that are worn by health care workers — ear-loop masks, construction masks and other consumer-grade masks don’t provide significant protection for the wearer. But ear-loop masks, homemade cloth masks and other face coverings have still been shown to significantly reduce the spread of coronavirus.

There’s an illustration — a meme — that has circulated on social media. It effectively drives home the point as well as any we’ve seen, because it’s funny and attention-grabbing. So, with apologies for being crass, it goes something like this: If you’re standing next to a stranger, and the stranger urinates, the chances of you getting pee on your leg are significant if neither of you are wearing pants. If you’re wearing pants but the stranger isn’t, the chances of you getting pee on your leg are reduced, but still present. But if you’re both wearing pants, the chances of you getting pee on your leg are almost non-existent.

It’s a crude illustration, but it makes the point. Consumer-grade masks aren’t intended to prevent us from breathing in virus particles when we’re around someone. They’re intended to cause our own virus particles to spread across shorter distances when we cough or speak or sing.

Or, to sum it up much more succinctly, let’s take the approach that Mountain People’s Health Councils took Monday morning as it encouraged Scott Countians to wear masks: “My mask protects you, your mask protects me. If we all wear masks, we can help to slow the spread of Covid-19.”

Unfortunately, this is a concept that most Americans don’t fully grasp. While there are many who would refuse to wear masks no matter what, strictly as a matter of principle, the CDC failed to meet its burden to explain the concept of masks to the public when it initially made the recommendation to wear them.

The lack of understanding is manifested among our public officials. When Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed Executive Order 54, granting county mayors the authority to issue mask mandates for residents of their communities, the mayor of a county adjoining Scott County quickly issued a statement that he would not be signing a mandate to wear masks. As part of his announcement, he urged that those who are medically vulnerable and fall into the at-risk category wear masks.

This isn’t an attempt to throw the county mayor under the bus. We don’t elect local officials to be health experts, and all of them are navigating uncharted waters against a pandemic that they’ve never experienced before and couldn’t have imagined before they took office. But all of us, and decision-makers especially, should be aware that masks won’t be fully effective if at-risk people wear them to protect themselves; they’ll only be fully effective if everyone else wears them to protect at-risk people.

So this is where we are. No, there isn’t a mandate in Scott County, nor should we expect one. In rural America, mandating masks is the closest thing to committing political suicide — which is precisely why Gov. Lee placed the onus on county mayors rather than implementing a statewide policy. This newspaper isn’t urging Scott County to issue a mask mandate, or even urging our readers to wear them. Every person should decide for themselves how best to protect themselves and their family members, their friends and their neighbors amid this pandemic.

Masks aren’t for everyone. The idea of forcing elementary-aged children to wear masks all day, every day when school is in session is laughable. Some people can’t wear masks for medical reasons. And no matter our age or our health, masks are a nuisance. They’re hot, they’re uncomfortable…and they hurt our ears.

On the other hand, so many people have refused to wear masks because they see them as an effort to infringe on the personal liberties of Americans; as part of a government plot to make us all compliant. Americans are a unique people in this world, which is precisely why draconian efforts to curtail the spread of the virus that have worked so well in other developed nations would never work here. We place extreme value and emphasis on the ideas of personal freedom and liberty. We’re proud and we’re stubborn. It’s what makes us Americans, and it’s part of our national DNA. We don’t take kindly to being told what to do by anyone — especially the government.

But what says freedom and liberty like an entire nation of people deciding for themselves — without being forced or even encouraged — to wear masks, not to protect themselves but to protect their father, their grandmother, their elderly neighbor, or their friend who has type 2 diabetes?

The ironic part of the mask debate is that many of us who have steadfastly refused to wear them are the ones who have advocated so loudly for life to return to normal — for football games to be played, for school to start back, for businesses to be left alone. And that includes the author of this editorial. The simple truth is that if enough people bought in to the concept of masks and decided to wear them for the greater good, all of the above could happen. University of Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer has urged Tennesseans to wear masks so that the Vols can play this fall. TSSAA Executive Director Bernard Childress has urged Tennesseans to wear masks so that high school football teams can play. If college football and high school basketball — and the sports that follow those — don’t happen because we still have unchecked spread of the virus, if we continue to have to rip the things our youth love away from them, we’ll never be able to conclusively prove that we could’ve changed things by wearing masks. But we’ll always have to wonder.

Here’s the bottom line: Those who want to wear masks should wear masks. Those who don’t want to shouldn’t. It’s a personal choice, and there’s been enough brow-beating — from both sides — to last most of us a lifetime. Our society is divided enough over presidential preferences, statues of dead military generals and the issue of policing our communities. The last thing we need is to willingly divide ourselves further over the issue of masks.

But that doesn’t have to stop us from asking ourselves a fundamental question: If we won’t wear masks for ourselves, for whatever reason, are we willing to wear a mask to protect those around us?

Because that’s really what it’s all about.

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Independent Herald
Contact the Independent Herald at newsroom@ihoneida.com. Follow us on Twitter, @indherald.
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