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Zirpoli: The power of the mask

Recently, an accidental study at a hair salon in Springfield, Missouri, demonstrated the power of face masks in protecting people from COVID-19 transmission. Two hairstylists worked with a total of 140 clients over a period of one week while sick with COVID-19.

Luckily for the 140 customers, the salon mandated masks for all employees and customers and practiced social distancing among stylists and customers. The result: None of the 140 customers became infected.

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When the hairstylists' infections were discovered, records were retrieved and all 140 customers they served were traced and called daily to see how they were doing. Weeks later, none of them reported being sick.

This reinforces the policy of wearing face masks as a primary preventative method of stopping the spread. But everyone needs to participate in order to bring our numbers down nationally.

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Too many states have not mandated the wearing of masks in public places. Recent trips to Virginia, for example, I found some people wearing masks in grocery stores, but not everyone. Virginia mandates the masks but announced that it would not be enforcing the policy and store operators don’t want to get into fights with their customers.

Thus, a policy on masks helps, it will not fully succeed unless it is enforced. There will always be some people who don’t think the rules apply to them and who are inconsiderate about spreading their germs to others.

Unfortunately, thanks to President Donald Trump, who demonstrated how weak he is by stating that wearing a mask would make him look weak, the mask has taken on a political significance. Many Republican governors refuse to mandate mask-wearing and, sure enough, the number of cases of COVID is increasing in many of their states, with Florida leading the way.

Interestingly, a majority of Americans, Democrats and Republicans, support the mask as a simple sacrifice to stop the spread and save lives. Our politicians, unfortunately, have not caught up with the American people or the research.

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A recent review of 172 studies published in The Lancet, the British medical journal, on June 1 found that the power of the mask is significant in reducing the spread of viruses, including COVID-19. As a result of these studies, Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University stated that “face masks are a key component of the non-pharmaceutical arsenal we have to combat COVID-19.”

Unfortunately, when COVID-19 was first identified as an issue in America, experts were afraid that doctors and hospitals would not have enough masks to treat the influx of patients with COVID-19. Thus, they recommended that Americans not wear masks. This has led to significant confusion among the American people and many of these health experts have admitted to this initial error.

A study published in Nature Medicine found that even loose-fitting surgical masks block “almost all” contagious droplets. Another study published in Global Health found that a majority of transmission of the virus occurred inside and that the mask’s ability to block droplets significantly decrease transmission from one person to another, especially if both are wearing a mask.

They measured a transmission decrease of 79 percent which is consistent with other studies of surgical masks. Even homemade masks, depending on the material and how well they fit, can decrease transmission rates by 50 percent or more according to May Chu, an epidemiologist at the Colorado School of Public Health. Combined with social distancing and hand-washing, according to Chu, homemade masks can make a difference.

Both hairstylists in Springfield, Missouri, by the way, were wearing cloth masks.

While we wait for a vaccine, Americans can still make a difference in slowing the spread of COVID-19 now. We have learned much over the last six months, including the power of the mask.

Tom Zirpoli is the program coordinator of the Human Service Management program at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster, MD. His column appears on Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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