The maddeningly bizarre social media food-fights over the value of face masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19 won’t end just because Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb mandated Hoosiers to wear them.
Still, any rational person had to be convinced — or, at the very least, persuaded — after listening to the physicians participating in Holcomb’s weekly news conference Wednesday afternoon. (A YouTube video of the news conference at https://bit.ly/2OKy6bd is available online for folks who missed it.)
The governor announced his executive order during that state coronavirus update.
In a nutshell, the order calls for Hoosiers 8 years or older to wear face coverings in indoor public spaces and businesses, while using public transportation and in outdoors situations where physical distancing isn’t possible.
A mask need not be worn while eating or drinking, during strenuous physical activity, or by people with medical conditions or disabilities that prevent them from wearing a mask.
Holcomb’s order takes effect on Monday. Failure to mask up will be a Class B misdemeanor. The governor doesn’t intend to deploy “mask police.” He’s counting on residents to abide by the policy.
Holcomb was surrounded by doctors with extensive experience in practicing medicine and public health work. And, here’s the crucial part — the governor trusts their guidance.
They included Dr. Jennifer Sullivan, who works in Indianapolis’ Riley Hospital emergency department and serves as Indiana’s secretary of the Family Social Services Administration. There also was Dr. Lindsay Weaver, the Indiana Department of Health’s chief medical officer and a practicing physician in Methodist Hospital’s emergency department. And, there was Dr. Daniel Rusyniak, an ER doc, the FSSA’s chief medical officer and a professor of emergency medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine.
All three gave compelling testimonies about how the effectiveness of face masks, and not just the high-grade N95 versions. None mentioned billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, 5G towers, implanted microchips or other wacky conspiracy theories. They did dispel concerns, though, about a piece of personal protective equipment that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says can protect both the mask wearer and others nearby.
“While the guidance on masks has changed throughout this pandemic, there are a growing number or studies that support wearing a cloth face covering to help reduce the transmission of COVID-19,” Weaver said.
Rusyniak used the most detail. His face mask story was vivid and might unsettle folks eating breakfast as they read his comments. But his description may be, pardon the pun, just what the doctor ordered.
“A few weeks ago, while working in the emergency department, I had a pretty significant COVID exposure,” Rusyniak explained. “Without getting too much into the details, I had a patient who had a massive coughing spell that literally spewed moisture directly in my face while I was doing a COVID test. And what became very clear very quickly, especially as my glasses fogged, was that the only things separating me from the millions of airborne particles of coronavirus were my glasses and my face mask.”
His cloth surgical face mask mattered.
After that episode, Rusyniak self-quarantined for two weeks and got tested at one of the state Department of Health testing sites. His COVID test came back negative and he never developed symptoms.
“So while a face mask is not foolproof, and in a similar setting I would have been better off with an N95 mask or a face shield, I am convinced that the only difference between me being home sick, or worse in a hospital sick, and me being here today is that I had on a face mask,” Rusyniak said. “So, please, please wear a mask. It might just save your life.”
Sullivan responded to Facebook chatter about masks decreasing oxygen intake, increasing the inhalation of toxins, shutting down the body’s immune system and even increasing risks of contracting the virus.
“Old, crusty surgeons have worn masks for 12- to 18-hour cases in a row, for complex ways that they save our lives, working on your brain, working on your heart, working on all kinds of other things,” she said.
“Masks have holes in them,” Sullivan continued. “So fabric is not solid. And the molecules that go back and forth across those masks are smaller than the holes in the fabric. That doesn’t matter if it’s a cloth mask or an N95, or an N95 with a mask over the top; you can breathe in and out with those, just like you can without one on. So, no worries about toxins. No worries about carbon dioxide retention. Some of the smartest people in the world wear masks all day while doing their jobs. So, I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Sullivan also pointed out that children being treated for cancer wear masks nonstop, “and they grow up and thrive and do very, very well.”
FSSA is working to counter misinformation. “The National Guard has helped us understand where that [misinformation] is coming from, as well,” Sullivan said.
“We try to get good information out in front of the public, to make sure that you’re not scared,” Sullivan added. “There’s lots of reasons to be scared right now; masks are not one of them.”
The governor ordered mask wearing after reported cases in Indiana reached 5,169 in the past week, more than 7% higher than the previous peak in April, and after he’d seen Indianapolis Star photos showing only about 20% of residents wearing masks. Holcomb also noted that “even the president said yesterday this is going to get worse” and had urged people to wear masks and called it “patriotic.” (President Donald Trump has previously been dismissive of mask wearing, likely inspiring the resistance to it across the U.S.)
Holcomb wants to prevent the need to roll back the state’s reopening, the closing of schools again and a rise in coronavirus deaths. “I’ve seen this movie before. I’ve seen it around the country. I know how it ends,” he said. “And we’re trying to change that ending, for real people.”
Let’s listen to the doctors and mask up.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.