Saturday, December 5, 2020
Dec. 5, 2020

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In Our View: Mask-wearing safeguards health, community

The Columbian
Published:

Clark County residents appear to be enjoying a little freedom.

Two weeks ago, the county entered Phase 2 of the state’s Safe Start program for reopening businesses and social functions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Many patrons have visited local restaurants, barbershops and salons to slough off the pandemic doldrums.

Phase 2 of Washington’s reopening plan allows for restaurants and taverns to operate at 50 percent capacity. It also eases some restrictions on in-store retail sales, construction and office-based businesses. And while outlets have reported brisk business, the goal for residents must be to move Clark County toward Phase 3 of the reopening guidelines.

In other words, the wearing of protective masks, frequent washing of hands and adherence to social-distancing protocols is imperative. Carelessness could increase the spread of COVID-19 and provide a detour on the path to a full reopening.

The use of masks has inexplicably become not only a question of public health but of politics. As The Washington Post explained last week: “Four months of discord about the coronavirus epidemic have transformed the cloth mask into a potent political symbol, touted by Democrats as a key part of communal responsibility, labeled by some GOP leaders as a sign of government overreach and as a scarlet letter pinned on the weak.”

Rather than a political statement, we consider the wearing of a mask in public to be a simple matter of common sense and consideration for our neighbors. A recent review of studies, published in the British medical journal The Lancet, would seem to agree.

Data from 172 observational studies indicate that wearing a mask reduces the risk of COVID-19 infection. Holger Schunemann, an epidemiologist who authored the review, said: “Our findings suggest, in multiple ways, that the use of masks is highly protective in health care and community settings.”

Part of the difficulty in devising a response to the pandemic has been a lack of information. With the disease being new and with its spread being swift, researchers are starting from scratch in assessing how it spreads and how best to combat it. Data have frequently changed, as have recommendations from experts — leading to confusion among the public.

That uncertainty also is endemic with the survey in The Lancet; the information comes from observations, rather than standard double-blind trials. And the use of masks is not foolproof. But available information indicates they are the best way to avoid spreading the virus, and the Centers for Disease Control urges their use.

A large percentage of Americans appear to understand and accept that advice. A recent Axios-Ipsos poll finds that 50 percent of the public reports wearing a mask “at all times” when in public, while 27 percent say they wear one “some of the time.”

A model by a computer scientist named De Kai suggests that if 80 percent of people wore masks in public, COVID infection rates would drop more than 90 percent compared with an unmasked population. An infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University called the study “a very thorough model and well done.”

Science is imperfect, particularly when dealing with a new infection that provides imperfect information. But until a coronavirus vaccine is developed and made widely available, the best available information suggests that the wearing of masks is the best way to slow the pandemic.

It also is our best hope for easing Clark County into Phase 3 of the reopening.

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