‘It’s about being a good neighbor.’ Why you should wear a face mask even if you’re young and healthy
By Kristy Bleizeffer Jul 2, 2020
Positive COVID cases continue to rise in Natrona County and Wyoming, even as more businesses and facilities look for safe ways to re-open. Convincing most people to wear a face covering in public is one important step to curbing local transmission and ensuring our economy can stay open.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends people wear face coverings whenever they are in public or with people not from their households. But there is still confusion about who those face coverings are meant to protect.
“It’s not as much about protecting yourself as it is about protecting someone’s kid who has asthma, or who has cancer or who is at higher risk of a serious COVID infection,” said Andy Dunn, MD, Wyoming Medical Center Chief of Staff and Chief of Primary Care.
“Face coverings can help protect you from respiratory droplets expelled by people around you to a limited degree, but the goal is really to limit the droplets you expel to the people around you.”
Below, Dr. Dunn explains the mechanics of coronavirus spread and why wearing a face covering is a civic responsibility.
Explain how a face covering prevents the spread of coronavirus.
The virus is spread mainly through respiratory droplets expelled through coughs, sneezes and even speech when people are in close proximity. Basically, a face covering is stopping or at least reducing the distance these water droplets can travel from your mouth or nose and out into the air.
Without that barrier, water droplets travel about six feet. A barrier, such as a cloth face covering over the nose and mouth, reduces that distance to around maybe 2 feet. That means there is less of a chance those droplets reach other people around you.
Who are you protecting when you wear a face covering?
When we talk about face coverings, people often say, “Well, I’m young. I’m healthy. I’m not worried about getting sick from COVID.” That’s not actually the way to look at it.
When you wear a mask, it’s not to protect yourself from getting the coronavirus. It’s to limit the spread of the virus from yourself to those around you. It’s about being good to your neighbor, it’s thinking about your grandparents or someone else’s grandparents, or people who are immunocompromised. It’s showing that you have respect for your community.
Why should a person who isn’t sick, or who hasn’t been exposed to someone with COVID-19, wear a mask in public?
Up to 40 percent of people who have tested positive for COVID in the last several weeks are asymptomatic, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. That’s a scary number. These are people in their 20s or 30s, young people who are active and who are going out to bars and other outings without face coverings and they are projecting their droplets out into the world in a six-foot radius.
These are people who have the coronavirus, don’t know they have it, don’t have any symptoms, but who can spread it to other people nonetheless. That’s worrisome for people who are in higher risk categories for getting a more serious case of COVID.
Is that 40 percent statistic also true for Natrona County?
It is a nationwide statistic, but we’re seeing a similar level of asymptomatic positive cases in Natrona County.
We’ve seen many positive cases that we caught either through contact tracing or they had mild symptoms that they thought were allergies or a cold. Many of those would never have been tested and been out and about in the community because they had no COVID symptoms or their symptoms were so mild.
You might have the coronavirus and never know it. That’s why you wear a mask. It’s like drinking and driving. You don’t drink and drive not only to prevent hurting yourself, but even more so to prevent hurting or killing somebody else. Something as simple as wearing a face mask, it’s really thinking about others.
How many people need to wear a mask to reduce community transmission?
Ideally, you want about 95 percent compliance – that is 95 percent of people in your community wearing masks whenever they were in public or around other people.
But, if you even had something to the tune of 80 percent of people complying by wearing cloth face coverings and social distancing, you could see a huge reduction in the transmission of rate and prevalence. One study from the IHME (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation) showed that there would be 33,000 fewer deaths through October if 80 percent of people wore face coverings. That’s just mortality. It doesn’t include the reductions in severity of infections, the complications, ICU stays or number of people needing months or years to recover from such a serious illnesses.
Does it matter what kind of mask people wear to reduce spread of water droplets from the wearer’s mouth and nose?
Ideally, N95 masks are the best bet. If you want to get crazy technical, you’d want to consider different types of respirators.
But any barrier is better than not. If most people, 80 percent or more, wear cloth masks in public, it’s quite effective.
What is the correct way to wear a mask?
To be effective, the face covering must cover both your mouth and your nose.
Avoid touching the front of the face covering, because you’ll be touching the droplets that your mask is catching. If you do have the virus, you touch your mask, and then it’s on your fingers, and then you open a door or touch a hard surface, and the virus droplet is out in the environment. Treat the front of your mask like either you’ve received droplets from someone close to you, or that you yourself have droplets that are infected with COVID.
Launder your mask every day. The virus, studies have shown, is really unstable with simple soap and water, so that goes to show how far good, consistent hand-hygiene can go. It doesn’t matter if your washing machine is hot or cold, just old fashioned soap will do it.
Generally, disposable masks should not be used more than a day at a time.
How would 80 percent masking compliance affect opening of the economy?
It would make things much more doable. It’s a two-way street: We definitely need to keep businesses open, but to do so, everyone has to do their part.
Doing simple things like wearing face coverings and social distancing are very essential to just ending the mechanics of viral delivery. We know the virus is on water droplets. Put a barrier in front of your mouth and you’re going to reduce that distance that the droplet can travel. If you distance yourself six feet, you’re also giving yourself and other people the barrier of space. Just those things alone, and with good hand hygiene, we can open things up and keep things open.
We can’t have a pill for everything, and we don’t have a treatment for COVID. We don’t even know about the vaccine yet or when it will be available. But, we do know masking, social distancing and washing your hands can reduce viral transmission and will afford us the ability to keep our economy open.
Many people will be gathering this weekend for Fourth of July. What advice can you offer for celebrating safely?
First thing is wear your face covering, whether you are inside and outside. Just because you are outside does not mean that the Wyoming wind is going to whisk it away. Water droplets are heavy, and we shouldn’t assume that.
Second thing is good hand hygiene. If you can’t wash your hands every so often, use hand sanitizer. Do that anytime you are touching surfaces or other people. Also, you shouldn’t be touching people as best you can. Keep your social distancing at least six feet apart.
Stay home if you are sick or have symptoms. A lot of times people think their mild sniffles or other symptoms are just allergies. Unfortunately, those can actually be mild COVID symptoms. If you have any kind of symptoms, you really should stay away from people. Call your provider and see if you do need testing. There are so many people with mild symptoms who think they just have allergies, but it turns out to be COVID.
Finally, bring your own food, bring your own drinks and don’t serve food buffet style.
How does the rate of COVID positive cases now compare to early this spring?
Unfortunately, 25 percent of all of the positive case Wyoming has recorded since the beginning of the pandemic have come in the last two weeks. That is super significant.
Natrona County has had 20 positives in the last week. One was a tourist from Yellowstone that was travelling through. It doesn’t count as our statistic, but the virus is out in our community. And it is being transmitted.
We know more about COVID now than we did in March and April, and we have more supplies and PPE, and we have better ways to direct people getting tested. We know that wearing a face covering, practicing social distancing, avoiding large crowds in enclosed places and good hygiene can tamp down the virus spread.
But, we’ll only be able to stay open and protect our businesses if we all do our part. It’s unfortunate that we can’t all do the right things now because, during the lockdown in March, April and May, everyone sacrificed so much. We’re taking some steps backwards because people are refusing to wear masks and social distance.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Remember your grandparents, your brothers, your sisters, your friends who have asthma. If we don’t get it together, we won’t be able to do it all. Everyone needs to do their part. It can’t be a piecemeal approach. It has to be every county, it has to be Wyoming, it has to be the United States. People have to buy into some simple things that can allow us to gain some traction with the virus.
Dr. Dunn is Chief of Staff and Medical Director of Primary Care at Wyoming Medical Center. He is board certified in family medicine. He see patients at Mesa Primary Care in West Casper.