One day after dismissing studies showing the benefits of mask wearing to help control the spread of COVID-19 as “a difference of opinion” with anti-mask advocates, Clark County’s top elected official said she now supports wearing masks as a way to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring O’Brien said her comments at a Board of Health meeting on Wednesday were misconstrued.
“Did I say not to wear masks?” Quiring O’Brien said Thursday. “Some physicians say they are not effective. Who are you supposed to believe? At this point, I believe (Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick),” she said.
Quiring O’Brien’s comments Wednesday were roundly criticized by the majority of the Clark County Council as being unprofessional, irresponsible and dangerous. A spokesman for Gov. Jay Inslee said such comments negatively impact the efforts of health care workers in Washington.
“These kinds of comments obviously aren’t helpful, and they are untrue,” Mike Faulk, Inslee’s deputy communications director and press secretary, said in an email. “Masking up is saving lives.”
Quiring O’Brien, who with Councilor Gary Medvigy was seen attending a recent political rally without a mask, said Thursday she had challenged Melnick because it is her responsibility to question staff and other officials.
“I asked the question about it because other physicians say they don’t work,” Quiring O’Brien said.
In that exchange, Quiring O’Brien said: “It’s frustrating to me because I hear the opposite, Dr. Melnick. That masks really don’t help, and I don’t think it’s junk science. I just think it’s a difference of opinion.”
She did not name the doctors or cite research backing that view.
Quiring O’Brien and Medvigy are seen in a video that is circulating attending a recent rally for Republican gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp. The video shows most attendees, including Quiring O’Brien and Medvigy, not wearing masks.
Both councilors defended their actions at the event.
“I have time of my own. I care for my own health, and I make my own health decisions,” Quiring O’Brien said. “If everybody was wearing masks and wanted masks to be applied, I would have.”
Medvigy said that he has a hearing disability stemming from his service in the U.S. Army. He said he typically does wear masks in public despite a disability exemption under state law, “but at this event, I took advantage of the exemption, because I wanted to say, ‘Hi’ in an election year to someone running for governor.”
Medvigy walked back criticism he’d leveled against the county’s top health officer, when he said “there seems to be only one conduit, and that’s you, and we kind of get, ‘Talk to the hand’ as far as a response.”
Medvigy said that was a reflection of his frustration with state officials rather than Melnick.
“What I was talking about is the fact that we sit there and we try to get as much information as we can to get as much information as possible,” Medvigy said. “We have no authority. The governor has usurped it.”
All the other members of the county council criticized Quiring O’Brien.
“The comments by the chair and by Medvigy are irresponsible,” Councilor Temple Lentz said. “By undermining public health officials and the best available science, they are actively standing in the way of reopening businesses and sending kids back to school.”
Councilor John Blom echoed Lentz’s comments, saying it is “100 percent” proven that masks curb the spread of the virus.
“Suggesting otherwise is irresponsible and dangerous to the community,” Blom said. “We have businesses that want to reopen and parents that want to get their kids back in school. If we as a community do a better job of wearing the masks and social distancing we will get there much faster.”
Councilor Julie Olson, who also supports wearing face coverings, expressed “surprise and frustration” with the chair’s comments and said that statements to Melnick were “unprofessional.”
“We can have a reasonable discussion about testing data, inconsistencies in reporting, the reality of the targets required to move into Phase 3, but scientists around the world concur and are standing firm on wearing masks and social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Olson said. “It is not an opinion.”
“Wearing a mask should not be a political statement,” Olson said. “If we want to open our restaurants and businesses, wearing a mask will get us there much more quickly.”
Studies support masks
The state Department of Health and Clark County Public Health have stressed the importance of mask-wearing, which has been proven to be effective through numerous studies.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization both endorse face-coverings as one of the best methods to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Frank Ameduri, a public information officer for the department of health, said coronavirus is primarily spread by droplets that are exhaled by breathing, talking, singing, coughing or sneezing.
When you wear a face covering, the droplets are mostly held back and kept to yourself.
“A combination of physical distancing and wearing cloth face coverings significantly reduces the chances that an infected person will spread the disease to others,” Ameduri said in an email. “These are simple things each of us can do to reduce the spread of the virus and save lives.”
In Wednesday’s meeting, Melnick stressed these same points.
“The best way that we can really get these numbers down is if we practice physical distancing and masking,” Melnick said at the meeting. “If we had 95 percent of the population consistently practicing masking, we’d be way down in terms of the cases.”
A CDC study from over the summer showed that wearing a mask prevented the spread of infection from two hair stylists to their customers in Missouri.
The stylists, who had COVID-19, wore face coverings during their appointments, and 98 percent of their clients did, too. They came in contact with 139 people (clients and other close contacts), and none of those 139 people became ill.
Nearly 70 of those 139 contacts and clients agreed to be tested for coronavirus, and none of them registered positive tests.
In an email Thursday, Clark County Public Health Public Information Officer Marissa Armstrong said that “wearing face coverings, maintaining physical distancing and avoiding gatherings are all essential things we need to do to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”