Editorial: To mask or not to mask?

🕐 7 min read

It never fails. Just when it looks as though Donald Trump has conjured up enough common sense to pull off a convincing imitation of a leader, he reverts to form. He just can’t seem to clear that last, crucial hurdle: putting aside his own ego to do what’s best for the country.

After weeks of dangerously downplaying the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic and accusing his archenemies in the news media of blowing it out of proportion he finally started to defer to the expert advice he was getting on a daily basis. He abandoned his reckless pledge to “reopen the country” by Easter. He began to use his authority as commander in chief to increase the supply of desperately needed medical equipment instead of telling state governments they should look out for themselves. He adopted a more dignified – for him – demeanor in his daily briefings on the crisis.

Then, on Friday, his advisers concluded after considerable debate to recommend that all Americans wear face coverings when going out in public to augment the social distancing guidelines that have been extended through the end of the month. And what did the president of the United States do when he announced the recommendation? He completely undermined it by declaring that he has no intention of wearing a mask. At a crucial moment in the battle against this deadly menace, the occupant of the world’s most influential public office chose to flout his own administration’s advice and make a travesty of the recommendation.

The president is hardly alone, of course, in his penchant for botching the nation’s response to a deadly pandemic that continues to rampage out of control, in the United States and around the world. After weeks of watching spring-breakers and others frolic shoulder to shoulder on Florida’s beaches, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order but worded it so as to undercut more restrictive orders already put in place by local governments, including one intended to ban large crowds at church services.

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In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp issued a long overdue stay-at-home order because, he said, he had just discovered that people who have contracted COVID-19 but exhibit no symptoms can infect anyone and everyone they encounter. He just heard about it? The likelihood of the virus being spread by asymptomatic carriers has been discussed by health experts and frequently featured in news reports for weeks.

Here in North Texas, many local governments have issued stay-at-home orders and social-distancing guidelines but many too many people are ignoring them and our leaders are ignoring the violations. We see shoppers disregarding distance markers in crowded grocery stores, golfers sharing carts on local golf courses, people walking in groups as if they haven’t heard about the raging virus that poses the threat of lethal infection to all of us – not only, we now know, to the elderly and those with other health concerns.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is on television every day describing the horrifying toll the virus is taking on young and old alike in his state, especially in New York City. No state, no city, no town is immune to the devastation; no segment of the population is safe from it.

But the issue on the table today is masks: Should you wear one when you go out in public? Even the most stringent stay-at-home orders allow people to go to the grocery store, the drugstore, or a restaurant to pick up takeout meals. While many people, in Tarrant County and around the country, are working at home, employees of certain “essential” businesses are allowed to go to work. When making these outings, experts say, it is absolutely crucial that people maintain “social distancing” – staying at least six feet away from anyone they encounter. Many grocery stores and pharmacies have put markers on the floor to help people observe the proper distance.

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As noted, not everyone is adhering to the social distancing guidelines but even if you’re trying to follow the rules it’s not always easy to do. The line backs up at the grocery store. When you get to the checkout station, you’re standing face to face with the checker.

And that’s where a mask or some kind of makeshift face covering comes into play.

Early in the progression of the pandemic, experts were generally in agreement that masks for the general public were not a good idea. For one thing, a shortage of masks for medical personnel was rapidly reaching the critical stage and there was broad consensus that all available masks should be preserved for those who needed them most.

An excellent analysis of the mask dilemma by Time magazine quotes a Feb, 29 tweet by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams: “Seriously people – STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

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In the ensuing weeks, Time reports, “experts’ tones became more equivocal, suggesting that a supply shortage, not necessarily a complete lack of efficacy, may have partly driven the U.S. government agencies’ earlier guidance. In a March 26 interview with basketball star Stephen Curry, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, “When we say you don’t need to wear a mask, what we’re really saying is make sure you prioritize it first to the people who need the mask. In a perfect world, if you had all the masks you wanted, then somebody walking in the street with a mask doesn’t bother me – you can get some degree of protection.”

As spread of the virus by those with no symptoms grew from a matter of concern to a major problem, the mask discussion evolved into a heated debate. Mask proponents said a mask would definitely help prevent people who have the virus from passing it on to others – and that people who don’t have it might derive some incremental protection if they also practice social distancing.

On the other hand, Time notes, quoting Canadian physician and infectious disease scientist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, “it is very clear that many people wearing masks are negating any benefit from this by wearing the wrong mask, or touching their face to adjust the mask, and aren’t appreciating that if you’re practicing physical distancing and truly are separate from other people by six feet, mask wearing is unlikely to provide incremental benefit.”

So. To mask or not to mask? As the president made painfully clear, the decision is “voluntary” (not so in the South Texas city of Laredo, however, where residents can be fined up to $1,000 for going out unmasked). But what is the right thing to do?

Considered in the context of right and wrong, the decision is simple. If there is any chance at all that wearing a mask can prevent from someone from catching the virus – or, more important, from passing it on to someone else – then wearing a mask is the right thing to do. We’re in the midst of a rampaging pandemic; the death toll is rising faster than the statisticians can post the numbers. If you can keep one person from getting sick or dying you have a responsibility to do it.

Keep in mind, though, that wrapping a dirty, loose-fitting bandana around your face is not the answer. Even if you use a homemade mask – and you may have to, since medical personnel must have first call on “real” masks – make sure it completely covers your nose and mouth and fits well enough to keep potentially lethal droplets of virus from escaping when you cough, sneeze or talk. When you get home and remove the mask make sure it is washed and disinfected before you go out again.

We’re talking about life and death, folks. If you’re not sick today, you could be tomorrow. Or you could have the virus and not even know it, which means you could infect another person or many other persons – and every person you infect could die. All of us have to whatever we can to contain the spread of this deadly horror – and we have to do it now.

To read Time magazine’s analysis of the mask debate, click here.

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