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Robert Wack: Masking is self-sacrifice for the greater good - just like military service | COMMENTARY

When I was in the Army going through basic training, we had to do road marches, 10 to 15 miles with a full pack, in formation. The last stretch was always the hardest, with sore feet and backs, chafing from sweaty battle dress uniforms and pack straps.

For the most part, the platoon would endure, gritting it out in silence or with distracting banter. But there were always the complainers who made the trip so much longer by constantly pointing out how much we were all suffering. One way or another, we got to our destination, despite the hardships.

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Nobody likes to wear masks. I think we can all agree they are no one’s preference, and we’d all like to get back to not having to worry about whether we have a mask in the car, or if we’ve got a clean one, or whether the people around us are wearing them correctly. It’s exhausting and depressing. Virtually no one is arguing to the contrary.

Yet, we still have to wear them because we haven’t arrived at our destination, where COVID transmission is no longer dangerous. Our case numbers are rising in Carroll County because we are, as a community, slacking off on mask-wearing and distancing. Though understandable for the reasons above, these choices will lead to more cases in coming weeks, especially as people spend more time indoors because of cold weather and holidays. More cases are usually followed by more hospitalizations, and then more deaths, largely in people who are unvaccinated.

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While masks offer some protection to the wearer, they are most effective at protecting other people in the vicinity. COVID can spread before we know we have it, so we wear masks to avoid infecting people who are most at risk: the elderly, the immunocompromised, with known chronic health conditions, and people who have undiagnosed conditions that could lead to severe or fatal infection if exposed.

That could be you. Health changes, and just because you didn’t have cancer or an immune deficiency yesterday, doesn’t mean you won’t have something tomorrow, and that mask may save your life, or the life of someone you love.

Vaccination is our shortcut on the COVID road march, the quickest and most convenient path in a multilayered strategy to ending the the pandemic. COVID vaccine shots are readily available at Carroll County Helth Department clinics, local doctors’ offices and most drug stores. Talk with your provider if you have any questions. If you are fully vaccinated, consider a booster to help maintain your protection. But until more people choose vaccination, mask use is imperative for keeping community transmission under control.

A common objection to mask wearing is they don’t work. This doesn’t jibe with real-world evidence. In addition to many recent studies showing the benefits of masking, doctors and nurses in operating rooms around the world have worn masks during surgery for over 100 years, dramatically decreasing operative wound infections. We can see more evidence close to home by looking at current transmission rates in Maryland counties that have masking rules that are widely followed, versus the rest of the state. Even in areas with much higher population density, transmission rates are lower because people are still wearing masks. Neither masks or vaccination are 100% effective, but the more strategies we use, the less viruses spread.

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Another objection to masks is that they somehow are an intolerable imposition on personal liberty. This is puzzling because there are no laws that people follow without question that don’t somehow infringe on personal liberty. We can’t drive any way we want; we can’t discharge firearms wherever we want; we can’t just take what we want from our neighbors or a store. There are rules everywhere that constrain our freedom, and we follow them because they enable everyone in the community to better secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s the entire basis and rationale for American democracy: creating and following rules that constrain our personal liberty for the benefit of the entire community.

From the very beginning of the United States, Americans have understood the principle of self-sacrifice for the good of the community. It’s one of the defining characteristics of our patriotic traditions, from military service to charitable organizations. Wearing a mask indoors in public or around people at high risk is a way we show our care for others, a selfless action we take to help protect our community. We need to relearn and embrace that noble part of our heritage for the good of everyone.

Dr. Robert Wack serves as the Deputy Health Officer at the Carroll County Health Department. He can be reached at Robert.wack@maryland.gov

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