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Midlands Voices: Universal mask wearing is truly necessary during this health crisis

Midlands Voices: Universal mask wearing is truly necessary during this health crisis

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The writers are all M.D.s at Nebraska Medicine and faculty members at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

As infectious disease and critical care specialists at UNMC and Nebraska Medicine, we bear firsthand witness to the human toll of COVID-19 on a daily basis. While we are happy to see Nebraskans getting back to work and slowly restoring normalcy to our lives, we also sense a growing gap between the public’s perception that the worst of the pandemic is behind us and the reality that we continue to teeter on the precipice of disaster.

How the pandemic plays out in Nebraska largely depends on the collective result of how each of us acts individually. Just as the old Smokey Bear advertisements focused on personal responsibility to prevent forest fires, the same message is relevant here: Only YOU can prevent COVID-19.

Your safety, and the safety of your family and your neighbors, rest upon the actions you take in the coming weeks and months. So, what can you do?

You can start by wearing a mask.

Every citizen must commit to preventing spread if we are to make it through the summer without another major wave of infections. One of the most important actions is to wear a face mask or facial covering in public or when within six feet of someone who does not live in your house. We know that a mask reduces the likelihood that the wearer will infect other people, and because so many people with COVID-19 are completely symptom-free, masking has a large impact in reducing transmission.

In addition, universal mask-wearing in hospitals has dramatically reduced COVID-19 infection rates among health care workers, indicating that masks may protect the wearer as well. Masks also provide an important behavioral cue for increasing social distancing and hygiene.

Some Nebraskans seem to think that the danger of COVID-19 is overblown, or that the disease affects only older people and the sick. Daily rounds on our COVID critical care service tell us differently. A recent day’s census for critically ill patients with COVID-19 — 35 — was higher than ever, and of those, half were under the age of 60, and half were on ventilators.

Others think that the pandemic is essentially over, and case counts will necessarily fall. However, some states such as Georgia that re-opened business early and adopted more relaxed social distancing measures are seeing case counts rise again. While it is true that Nebraska’s health care system has not been overwhelmed to date, the reality is that the aggressive mitigation measures we adopted early — closing schools and businesses, limiting public gatherings, etc. — are what have held the epidemic in check. The vast majority of the population remains susceptible to infection, and if we relax our efforts now, we will certainly experience a recurring epidemic in the next six to eight weeks.

Our strategy to avoid this is two-fold: We must increase testing and case tracking (which is happening) and improve compliance with hygiene and social distancing measures (which is not happening).

Several countries that have successfully suppressed COVID-19 have made face masks a central part of their strategy, including Czech Republic, Taiwan, Austria and Israel. It is time we take personal responsibility for the safety of our families and fellow Nebraskans and do the same. Any quality two- or three-ply facial covering will do. Make sure you completely cover your nose and mouth and be careful to wash or sanitize your hands before and after touching your mask.

The CDC’s website has excellent guidance for those seeking more information.

Mask wearing can make all the difference in the coming weeks and months. Widespread adoption of masks sends a valuable signal of solidarity and caring — much needed sentiments at the moment. “When I wear a mask, I protect you. And when you wear a mask, you protect me.” That is a powerful social contract.

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