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Jared DeCoste: Nonpartisan science calls for a mask mandate | READER COMMENTARY

This is an open letter to Harford County Executive Barry Glassman and County County President Patrick Vincenti:

Too many have allowed politics to drive decisions during the pandemic, while nonpartisan scientists like myself are flabbergasted that the decision makers won’t listen. While I have vast experience as a leading materials chemist working in the area of chemical and biological filtration, the opinions expressed herein are my own.

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Harford County is the eighth most populous county in Maryland, and all seven of the larger counties have already issued a mask mandate; so the question is, why haven’t we? Masks are incredibly effective at preventing 90% of exhaled respiratory droplets that carry the SARS-CoV-2 virus from reaching their would be target. Masks prevent significant transmission of respiratory viruses, which is not a fact that is up for debate.

Dozens of people called and emailed both of your offices just in the past few days asking for a mask mandate, either to get no response or to get ill-informed responses that included such lines as this one from Glassman’s office:

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“However, we know that none of these measures, including a general mask mandate, will completely eliminate risk; fortunately, most COVID cases do not result in severe illness.”

Please know that all of your constituents understand that everything in life has a risk associated with it, but it is the government’s duty to help mitigate many of those risks in public settings. If we think of this like a traffic issue, sometimes you need a speed bump or a traffic light as problems arise. This may be a nuisance to some, but it is meant to protect the public. This is what masks are for COVID. We universally need them during periods of ultra-high transmission.

Let’s get back to our current COVID situation. Without blowing the total case numbers out of proportion, I am most concerned with the severe cases, as the omicron variant has made it very difficult to understand our current situation by the traditional metrics.

Maryland hospitals have more than 3,000 COVID patients right now; before this surge, there had never been more than 2,000 hospitalizations, and the number of hospitalizations is the best predictor of future deaths. Maryland added 48 additional deaths Tuesday, while last winter our highest seven-day average was 50 deaths. The current rate of increase for hospitalizations is accelerating, and we know from previous surges that deaths do not peak until after the hospitalizations, so we need to be concerned.

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On top of the deaths that are going to come from COVID patients in the hospital, the general public now cannot use its precious medical resources for other routine reasons. This collateral damage is causing people to put off “elective procedures” or not go to the emergency room when it may actually be the best course of action.

I know 75% of those in hospitals are unvaccinated, but, to me, that means that 25% (or 750) of those in the hospital are victims of the unvaccinated. What is lost in all of this is that vaccination protects others, just as much as it protects the individual, which is why the freedom of choice arguments are bogus. Vaccines prevent up to 80% of transmission , even though Glassman’s office told me that “the vaccine does not prevent cases from occurring.”

It is imperative to mitigate cases immediately, as more cases equal more hospitalizations equal more deaths. There is no way to immediately increase the number of people vaccinated, so when the situation escalates, the only response that can be implemented quickly is a mask mandate. In fact, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicts that adding a mask mandate will reduce the total number of cases by 40%. That is huge! Yes, it won’t eliminate all cases, , but it will save many lives and limit disabling long-COVID effects.

If this is about keeping the doors open at businesses and schools, a mask mandate actually gives you the best shot of that. Businesses and schools can easily operate with masks, but they can’t operate without staff. Businesses all over Harford County are having signs up that they are temporarily closed because they are understaffed due to COVID cases. We also know that schools are going to struggle to be in-person in the coming weeks for the same reason. I want my kids in school, and a community-wide mask mandate gives them the best chance of that.

I started a Change.org petition this weekend, which quickly garnered more than 500 signatures in support of a countywide mask mandate. It is clear to many that this is an important step in this ongoing public health saga. Public Health is everyone’s responsibility, and while some may choose to be ignorant or selfish, it is incumbent on you, the county leaders, to act in the best interest of the health of Harford County.

The time to be proactive was a month ago; the time to be reactive was a week ago; the time to be late to the party is now, and the time to be too late is coming. Don’t be too late.

Jared B. DeCoste, Bel Air

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