The restrictions that prevented local governments from implementing their own rules on masks were lifted this week. Mayor Regina Romero quickly used the opportunity to issue an order that Tucsonans wear masks in public when social distancing is not practical.
I support the order.
I’ve heard from a few of you who object to the order. I’d like to talk about a few of the arguments I heard and tell you why I find them less than compelling.
First off, my staff and I have heard people say that they are not worried about getting COVID-19. I’m too healthy, they say, or they’ve convinced themselves that it is a disease that only other people can get. Why wear a mask if you aren’t worried about being infected?
If I can be blunt: this isn’t just about you.
So, let’s say you go in for surgery. The doctor is getting ready to cut you open. She scrubs up and puts on a mask. Why does she do that? She isn’t worried about you infecting her. She is worried that she will infect you if she doesn’t take those simple precautions.
Wearing a mask, according to the CDC, offers some protection to the wearer from infection. However, and this is the important part, it prevents a wearer from spreading the disease to others. Sneezing, coughing and even speaking or breathing introduces particles into the air that can infect others. A mask keeps all that from getting out into the environment around you.
If you don’t seem sick, you can still be carrying the virus. Here is what the CDC says:
We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms (“asymptomatic”) and that even those who eventually develop symptoms (“pre-symptomatic”) can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms. This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity—for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms. In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.
By the way, one of those “areas of significant community-based transmission” is Arizona. More on that later.
Another thing I’m hearing more and more is that wearing a mask will cause carbon dioxide toxicity, hypoxia or hypercapnia since they restrict breathing.
Yes, the N-95 masks that health care workers wear can cause difficulties if worn for an extended period of time. That, among many reasons, is why the CDC recommends against non-professionals wearing them. However, the CDC recommends cloth masks to keep you from infecting others. Here is a comment from a chemistry professor at Indiana University quoted at Health.com:
I think it’s highly unlikely that you would pass out from a lack of oxygen with a cloth mask, which generally doesn’t fit tightly to your face. When you exhale or inhale, air can go around the mask as well through the pores in the material. This is why a cloth mask does not absolutely protect you from inhaling the virus, but by disturbing your exhalation flow it tends to protect those around you from aerosols in your breath.
Maybe you object to this order for philosophical reasons. You don’t like the government telling you what to do, or you have a problem with one politician or another, and no proclamation is going to make you wear a mask. Fine. Don’t wear a mask because of the mayor’s order. Wear a mask because you care about what happens to the friends and strangers you are going to interact with today.
The mask order is especially critical now because, unfortunately, Arizona is the leader in new outbreaks of Coronavirus. A study from ASU projects that the state will have 80,000 cases over the next few weeks, roughly double what we have now. Earlier this week, Arizona passed the mark of 2000 new cases in a single day. Growth like that is causing a shortage of local ICU beds, according to KOLD. Our local health care system is under severe strain already. I worry about our ability to deliver health services to all Tucsonans if those projections bear out.
We can keep that from happening by taking simple precautions like masks, hand washing and social distancing. It won’t take much if we all take responsibility.