Elected officials and public health experts agree on one thing: Everyone should wear masks.
“If you’ll notice, I’m wearing a mask today,” Gov. Mark Gordon said at his Wednesday press conference. “It’s important.”
With the economy reopening, officials around the country are touting a measured comeback so that it doesn’t cause a second wave of coronavirus infections. Social distancing has been effective in slowing the spread, but with people shopping, working out at gyms and leaving their houses en masse, it may not be possible for them to maintain 6 feet of space.
That’s part of the reason officials are pushing masks. If masks can provide some level of protection against the spread of the virus, they will be a crucial piece of a successful reopening.
“Even simple cloth face coverings can be an effective means of source control,” Teton District Health Officer Travis Riddell said last Friday at a community update. “Source control is the medical term for preventing the person who’s wearing the mask from spreading the illness to others.”
Most people don’t have access to N95 masks, the ones health care workers and first responders use. With limited supplies of such masks, it’s best for the layperson to use cloth face coverings, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cloth masks are empirically less effective at stopping aerosolized viral particles than N95 ones, but that doesn’t mean they are entirely ineffective. At Friday’s community update, Riddell cited a new model that projects profound success at impeding the virus’ spread through the use of masks, even the cloth variety.
“One well-designed model that’s out there now estimates that if 80% of a community were to wear face masks in situations where there was close contact, disease transmission was decreased by a factor of 12,” he said.
The model is from a Hong Kong University of Science and Technology professor in conjunction with a team of European researchers. Their research hasn’t yet been published, which means it has not passed a peer review process.
In their two models, they found that if 80% of a population wore masks by day 50 of the outbreak, spread of the virus could be basically stopped. That finding applied even if people wore cloth masks.
Their second model showed little impact if less than 50% of a population wore masks or did so too late in the outbreak. Though Teton County is past day 50 of its outbreak, case rates and numbers are dropping, meaning masks could still prove effective, something that has been on Riddell’s mind.
“The Health Department and I are giving serious consideration to a more fair and uniform face-covering rule,” Riddell said Friday. “I’m in the process of gathering information to make a determination on that now.”
Since counties must apply to instate new health orders, Riddell would need to go through State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist for such a requirement. Judging by Wednesday’s press conference, he would find a receptive audience.
“Face masks — as I’ve said many times and as the governor has said — are very important to us being able to limit and slow transmission as we begin to restrict some of the orders,” Harrist said Wednesday. “I would consider it and be happy to discuss that with Dr. Riddell.”
As of Wednesday evening, Riddell and Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond were still in the “contemplation phase,” Pond said. They want to normalize mask-wearing in the community, even if they don’t go through with an order.
Town councilors discussed the topic Monday, indicating that they might schedule an emergency meeting to consider a mask requirement if health officials requested it.
Wearing a mask in and of itself is not enough to quell the virus. Mask wearers must handle and clean their face coverings so they don’t infect themselves.
Guidance from doctors at Johns Hopkins University says people should have at least two cloth masks. That way they can wash one and have one to wear anytime they are in a situation where they cannot maintain social distancing.
To remove the mask safely once you are out of such a situation, the Johns Hopkins doctors say, wash your hands then remove it by slipping the elastic bands off your ears — without touching the front of it.
Wash the mask before wearing it again. Though the entire process can seem arduous, Gordon said, it’s important because you may not know the health status of someone you are interacting with, and you may be an asymptomatic carrier.
“Wearing one is a sign of respect,” he said.