Despite last week's record number of new COVID cases statewide, many Texans have ditched wearing a mask out in public. It’s no wonder: Recommendations from health officials are being consistently subverted by some government authorities.
Friday, Dallas County Commissioners approved an order that requires businesses to enforce mask wearing for employees and customers.
Yet President Donald Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott have both made their disdain for facial coverings clear. Trump largely refuses to wear one and makes disparaging remarks about those who do. Abbott tried to keep municipal leaders from enforcing citywide mask mandates.
Some are taking advantage of relaxed coronavirus regulations. For instance, the Miami Herald reported last week that 16 friends in Florida all tested positive for the virus after going out to a bar. No one was wearing a mask.
There seems to be some uncertainty about why it’s important to wear a mask during the pandemic. The Dallas Observer reached out to four North Texas health experts to help clear up any lingering confusion.
Why do experts recommend masks?
Masks are important to wear because they slow the spread of coronavirus, said Dr. Philip Huang, the director of Dallas County Health and Human Services.
When an infected person is talking, yelling, singing, coughing or sneezing, they emit tiny virus-laden droplets, Huang said. If that person is wearing a mask, however, it helps prevent those germs from spreading to others.
Countries where it’s routine for people to wear masks have been more successful in flattening the curve, he added.
“This universal masking is one of the main things that has driven down the epidemic curve when it’s being implemented,” Huang said.
Yes, you should wear one even if you don't feel sick.
World Health Organization experts now estimate around 40% of coronavirus transmissions stem from people who are asymptomatic. Just because someone feels fine doesn't mean they don't have the disease, Huang said.
It's important for everyone to wear a mask, he said. Only then can they be sure they're not unintentionally spreading the virus.
"If everyone does it, then it prevents those droplets from someone who doesn’t even know they’re infected from transmitting infection to others," Huang said.
Cloth masks work just fine.
Medical-grade masks should be reserved for health care workers and people who are at high risk, said Dr. Diana Cervantes, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
For everyone else, simple cloth masks are fine to wear in public, Cervantes said. Of course, people should still remember to wash their hands and practice social distancing.
“Anything you can do to block those droplets makes a difference,” she said.
When should you wear one?
Ideally, people should wear masks anytime they’re out in public, said Dr. Edward Dominguez, medical director of Organ Transplant Infectious Disease at Methodist Dallas Medical Center. Not only will it significantly lower one’s chances of spreading the disease, but it also sends a signal to others to keep their distance.
Masks also remind the wearer not to touch their face, he said. That’s important, considering studies have shown the average person unconsciously brushes their nose more than 100 times over the course of a day, he added.
“[Masks] tend to prevent us from touching our nose and touching our oral area where we might inoculate the virus from our hands,” Dominguez said.
Yes, you look uncool. So what?
Cervantes likened wearing a mask to putting on a helmet before a bike ride. It may look dorky, but public safety should come first, she said.
Dr. Eric Bing, professor of global health at Southern Methodist University, said using a mask is similar to wearing glasses. Eventually, it just becomes a normal part of daily life.
Like Cervantes, he said looking unstylish is a small price to pay for public health.
“You remember when you were 16 and you had to wear glasses or braces? You look uncool," Bing said with a laugh. "But you get over it.”
You don't need to wear one while exercising outdoors.
People are much less likely to transmit the disease when they’re outside, Dominguez said. Prevailing wind helps to disrupt the spread of coronavirus droplets.
When exercising outdoors, one needn't worry about wearing a mask; once it’s wet with sweat, it’s less effective in preventing spread, Dominguez said. Just be mindful to maintain a reasonable distance from other exercisers.
“Whether you’re walking, running or cycling, you don’t want to be drafting very close behind the person in front of you,” he said. “It’s best to try and stay out of their draft-path altogether.”
Wearing a mask could help the economy.
As Texas begins to reopen its economy, hospitals are seeing upticks in new coronavirus cases, Huang said. Yet if everyone used a mask, it would help to both flatten the curve and stop businesses from shuttering.
Putting on a mask is a good compromise, Huang added.
“This allows us to open things up in a safe manner and keep the economy going, but you just have to wear a mask,” Huang said. “I mean, it’s not that big a deal.”
Rotate your mask.
Dominguez recommends everyone own at least two to three masks that they can rotate. Most hospital staff have one mask for each day of the week.
If it’s a cloth mask, one should wash it with soap and warm water after every use, Dominguez said. Be sure to let it dry completely before wearing it again.
Some masks, like surgical ones, can’t be washed. Put those in a paper bag until it’s next up in the rotation, Dominguez said.
COVID doesn't care about your politics.
Somehow, wearing a mask — or not wearing one — has become politicized. But Bing said that mask usage and political preference shouldn't have anything to do with each other.
“The virus doesn’t know if I’m male or female, Black or white, gay or straight, Democrat or Republican; it does not care,” he said. “The virus leaves the politics out of it, so I will leave the politics out of it.”
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