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Midlands Voices: Evidence is clear on the benefits from mask wearing

Midlands Voices: Evidence is clear on the benefits from mask wearing

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The writer, M.D., is assistant professor of medicine at Creighton University and a specialist in infectious diseases for CHI Health.

After our peak activity in May, Nebraska has had decreasing COVID-19 activity, unlike other areas of the country. We need to do our best to keep it that way by controlling infection spread. Along with social distancing and good hand hygiene, mask wearing can help.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has estimated that if there were 95% compliance with mask-wearing in the United States, there would be about 33,000 fewer deaths from COVID-19 between now and Oct. 1, 2020. To put this in perspective, in 2018 (the last year for which data are available), there were 16,214 homicides in the country. Between 2001 and 2019, there have been a little fewer than 2,500 active military personnel killed in Afghanistan. Both of these are tragic losses of life, yet both are dwarfed by the number of lives that could be saved in just three months with near-universal mask wearing.

Unfortunately, some feel that this medical advice is not warranted. There have been suggestions that mask wearing is unhealthy (causing low oxygen levels), not beneficial in preventing disease transmission, and a violation of individual rights.

» Health effects of mask wearing: minimal. It is true that if you are not used to wearing a mask, you may be more likely to touch your face and infect yourself if you have virus on your hands. However, this is easily avoided with good hand hygiene and an active effort to not touch your face. There are no data to suggest that mask wearing leads to lower oxygen levels in your blood. Surgeons for decades have routinely worn masks for hours at a time during operations with no ill effects.

» No data suggesting mask wearing prevents disease transmission: technically true, realistically false. It is true that there are no human trials where a known infected person and uninfected people (masked or unmasked) are put together to see if the infection rate is different. The reason for this is simple: This would be very unethical. However, there are data suggesting that countries with higher rates of masking have lower infection rates, and there are animal studies showing that masking helps.

» Violation of rights: The argument has been made that mandating mask-wearing is a violation of rights. For some reason, it is considered a violation of liberty to mandate a mask in public, but not to mandate pants (or equivalent). In Nebraska, the only locations where mask wearing is mandated are salons, barbers and massage therapy or body art locations. (Private businesses may have their own rules, but are not addressed in the directed health measures.) Nebraska has not mandated universal masking in all public places; the state is expecting that people will do what is proper to protect themselves and each other. So far, Nebraska has done pretty well here. But we still need to keep ongoing efforts to decrease virus transmission, which includes wearing masks.

There are a few people who, because of medical conditions, cannot wear masks. Unfortunately, there are those who falsely claim to have conditions which would preclude mask wearing as a way to avoid mandates. While not commonplace in Nebraska, it remains terrible that these individuals falsely claim a disability, making those with true issues doubted at times.

I moved to Nebraska 14 years ago. When learning about Nebraska, multiple people told me about something called “Nebraska Nice.” I think we all see this every day. From simple actions like yielding in traffic, to the friendliness of people in the service industries, to those individuals currently wearing masks to protect others, we see Nebraska Nice all the time. And mask wearing is the epitome of Nebraska Nice: undergoing a slight discomfort (mask wearing) for the large benefit of others.

Who knows? Maybe one of the 33,000 lives saved by masking will be yours. Or mine. Or your parent, your spouse, your child.

So please, I would ask you:

Love your neighbor.

Love yourself.

Wear a mask.

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