Community mitigation: are masks alone enough to stop the spread of COVID-19?

BY CORIE LYNN

At the beginning October, the Hays City Commission voted in a special session to extend the city-wide mask mandate for the second time.

The first time the commission voted to extend the mandate, it was in the midst of an area-wide spike in COVID-19 cases and tension between community members who did or did not support the community mandate.

Like the first extension, this second extension was made with the hope that requiring masks in public places would help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

It also came with the support of a number of Hays-area doctors who sent and signed a letter to the city commission.

The letter, which was read at the city commission’s special session, stated, “During this pandemic, there have been a number of public studies reporting evidence that masks reduce the transmission of the virus.”

The commissioners kept this in mind as well as information and opinions from those opposed to the mandate when they entered the special session.

Ultimately, the city commission voted to extend the mandate until the case rate reaches an average of five cases per day over a 14 day period or the Kansas state-of-emergency ends.

While many medical professionals, including those in Hays, agree that masks are effective in mitigating the spread of the coronavirus, the question arises of whether they alone can bring the case rate down to the new mandate’s goal of a five case per day average.

According to Jason Kennedy, Ellis County’s Director of Health Services, the answer is simply no.

In fact, he states the county will not reach this rate in the near future, but the key to curbing the spread is the personal decision to protect oneself and others through additional mitigation and safety measures.

Besides wearing a mask in public, Ellis county and Hays residents should not gather in groups and should wash their hands frequently, socially distance and isolate themselves if ill.

Hays City Commissioner Mason Ruder likewise believes that the mandate alone will not bring down the case rate, and it was after listening to Kennedy and considering Ellis county’s community disease containment plan that he voted against the mandate extension.

He also believes that individuals will act in the best interest of themselves and others, seeking out medical advice and taking preventative measures of their own accord.

“I just did not believe the mandate was clear enough and we did not provide the education on mitigation measures as much as we should before it should have been discussed,” Ruder said.

In addition, he saw the blanket approach to mitigation, including shutting down Ellis county when there were no cases, as damaging to future efforts.

“People have lost buy-in because we have made this issue political and went too restrictive too fast,” Ruder said. “Plans are adopted to be followed.”

Like Kennedy, Ruder believes that any mitigation effort taken must be taken in tandem with other efforts. This, as well as educating community members and working with the Health Department will lead to an effective fight against the coronavirus.

“The virus is not going away. We need to learn to live with it, protect ourselves, protect our loved ones, and work as a community to bring us back together,” he said.

Though Hays Vice Mayor Sandy Jacobs voted opposite of Ruder on the extension of the mask mandate, she likewise believes that mitigation and reaching the five case per day goal is a community effort, one that comes from more than wearing masks.

She explained that her decision to extend the mandate came after visiting with individuals, including Kennedy, medical professionals and schools, who rested on either side of the issue.

“I felt given the continuing upward trend of percent of positive tests as well as the daily increase of new cases it was important to continue the mask mandate,” Jacobs said.

In addition, she followed news reports that state that if 95% of the population wore masks, 80,000 deaths can be prevented in the coming months.

To her, the mandate’s five case per day goal is reasonable and achievable.

Like Ruder, she does believe that the mandate must be followed in addition to the aforementioned safety precautions as the best way to combat the spread of the virus.

Jacobs’ desire going forward is that efforts such as these are addressed by the county health department and the Ellis county commissioners, and that those on either side of the mandate would work together.

“We are a great community and we will get through this. I believe we will get through it faster if we work together,” she said.

As divided as community members have been over the topic of the mandate, Kennedy does see aspects of mitigation going well.

This includes individuals distancing themselves, aided by the spread-out nature of Ellis county, as well as efforts to do what is best for oneself and others.

He reminds us, though, that those who work with or spend much time around at-risk populations must be especially careful.

“The individuals that care for this population may not be at risk but they can carry and pass it without knowing,” Kennedy said. “We need to all make smart choices but individuals that have routine contact with the at-risk population need to be extra diligent.”

Even as he encourages additional individual mitigation, Kennedy states we must continue to educate others on safe practices and encourage them to continue taking these precautions.

“It comes down to individuals modeling best practices and encouraging friends, family and loved ones to follow. This cannot be a top-down approach. If we want sustainable and supported measures, they must come from the community,” Kennedy said.

Part of being realistic is acknowledging that COVID-19, in Kennedy’s own words, sucks.

He explains that the virus and the fallout of the pandemic has affected everyone, with some people believing the response has gone too far while others believe more needs to be done. We all, however, must press on and encourage one another as we search for an end to the pandemic.

Each of us, too, is afraid of a COVID-19, whether that fear is that of a loss of freedom, of making the wrong decisions or of reactions to the virus.

“We must all recognize and empathize with the fear of others and ourselves,” Kennedy said. “If we switch roles and empathize with their fear, we just might understand what is driving them.  This will allow us all to find the middle ground and make realistic changes allowing us to move forward.”

It seems that there is a simple answer to the question of whether the masks alone can bring cases down to the mandate’s goal: no, that cannot.

However, regardless of where one stands on the subject of the mandate, masks alone were never enough to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

It takes additional safety measures, like social distancing and handwashing, in a community-wide effort to effectively mitigate the spread of the virus. Masks help, but it is not the only measure we need to take.

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