Mask up! Don't let down your guard against COVID-19

Shelly Haberman

Even as the United States reopens, it's crucial that people wear face masks when they can't maintain proper social distancing.

While masks help keep individuals from getting sick, they are even more effective at preventing somebody else from getting sick. They inhibit some of an infected person's droplets from spreading. This is especially important for people who either have no COVID-19 symptoms or have symptoms so mild that they don't realize they are infected.

In fact, wearing a mask is a way to say, “I care about you,” to those around you.

However, masks alone aren't enough. Social distancing and hand hygiene also play crucial roles in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

There has been much information being shared about masks and why they are important to helping to reduce COVID-19 rates.

“More recently, there has been a better understanding of the notion of the ‘asymptomatic spreader,’” according to Taha El-Shahat, MD, a family medicine physician with the Fond du Lac Regional Clinic, a member of Agnesian HealthCare. Agnesian HealthCare is part of SSM Health. “This is basically a patient who is COVID-19 positive and in the acute infectious phase, but is not experiencing any of the typical symptoms, such as cough, fever, sweats, etc. It turns out that a significant proportion of the spread of COVID-19 is being done by these patients who don’t even realize they are ill.”

This can only mean one thing: while it seems obvious that a person who is coughing can spread viral particles into the air, if a person who is not coughing can also spread the virus, that must mean the virus can spread by normal respiration and extended exposure to an infected individual’s respiration.

“Do masks work?,” Dr. El-Shahat says. “Absolutely. Cloth masks might not provide that much protection if you are in an enclosed space with an infected person who isn’t wearing a mask. However, if you and the infected individual are both wearing masks and keeping distant, then the odds of spreading the disease drop dramatically.”

This is why universal mask wearing is so important, according to Dr. El-Shahat. “Masks work by interrupting the flows and eddies in the air caused by normal breathing that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Getting children to wear masks is an especially difficult, and somehow heartbreaking, task. Being the father of a toddler trust that I know. When my son asked me why he needed to wear a mask, I explained that he was ‘being a little superhero by helping keep sick people safe,’”

Dr. El-Shahat shares that his wife went online and found him a mask with his favorite superhero symbol on it (Batman) and a mask with his favorite cartoon characters on it (Paw Patrol).

“Now he wears them proudly when we go out in public and even asks to wear his mask whenever he sees me put mine on,” he says. “I have several adolescent patients who have described feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. I take the opportunity to reinforce the idea that they are wearing masks for the sake of others. The vast majority can appreciate that concept and feel empowered to make a difference in directly addressing this disease.”

There is no dispute that masks are inconvenient and uncomfortable, especially during the hot summer months.

“We have a responsibility to protect those of us who are most vulnerable,” Dr. El-Shahat says. “Just think: by wearing a mask, you could potentially be saving lives. By encouraging others to wear masks, you could be saving even more lives. Have faith that we will all get through this, and please be kind and neighborly and do your part to help protect those of us who need protecting most.”

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