A Friendly Public Health Announcement

Back in January, I wrote a blog post that questioned the judgment of the leadership of Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS). In the midst of the COVID-19 Omicron surge, VBCPS’s top brass made a recommendation at a school board meeting that parents be allowed to send their children to school without a mask. Just four days prior to the meeting, the number of new COVID cases in Virginia Beach climbed to 1,460, and the seven-day average of new cases stood at 1,153 (Virginia Department of Health, 2022). The board approved the ambiguously worded recommendation by a 9-2 vote.

Two months before VBCPS lifted its mask mandate, the City of Virginia Beach bragged about its so-called “third-place victory” in the 2021 Digital Cities Survey, which the city was awarded in part for its response to the pandemic and “Advancing data-driven decision-making across the City [sic].” Ironically, the VBCPS decision to make masks optional had nothing to do with data. Despite claims on its website that “Virginia Beach City Public School leaders are discovering the power of data for promoting school improvement,” this doesn’t apply to health-related decisions by downtown leadership.

On a more optimistic note, I’m happy to say that by late February, the number of new COVID cases in Virginia Beach dropped substantially, and the seven-day average of reported new cases has been below 65 ever since. This doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. Some countries are reporting their highest death rates since 2020

The ongoing emergence of Omicron BA variants serves as a reminder of how quickly COVID-19 can mutate and spread, especially in areas with low vaccination coverage. COVID vaccinations are not available to countless populations around the world, yet millions of Americans who have access to the vaccine are simply refusing it. 

Individuals with certain allergies or underlying conditions should consult a doctor before getting vaccinated; however, there’s no logical reason for anyone else to skip the shot.* Paranoia, science denial, and addiction to conspiracy theories are not among the underlying conditions I’m referring to, though people with these afflictions should also seek consultation. Consider the following: 

  • On January 15, 2022, the death rate for unvaccinated persons in the US was more than 20 times the death rate of the fully vaccinated (Our World in Data, 2022). 
  • Only 0.002% of Americans who received a COVID-19 vaccination in 2021 died as a result of receiving the shot (COVID-101, 2021; University of Missouri Health Care, 2022). 

Why Should We Still Wear Masks? 

At the end of my blog post on VBCPS’s hypocritical leadership, I said that “my next blog post will address the effectiveness of masks in preventing the transmission of COVID-19.” This did not come to pass. Whenever I started to write, there was a new development in America’s ongoing mask melodrama. I decided to wait until the time was ripe. 

The time came last month when a federal judge in Florida struck down mask-wearing requirements on airplanes, trains, and other public transportation in the US. While some say the mandates might come back, I believe that any attempt to reinstate airline mask mandates will fail. My prediction is based on the number of “mask incidents” on airlines – nearly 4,300 in 2021 – as well as the reaction of airline passengers when they heard masks were no longer required.  

This does not bode well for our nation if another virulent strain of COVID emerges. According to a recent article in National Geographic (2022), more variants are on the horizon. The article reiterated that “masks have been shown to be effective in limiting the risk of COVID-19, both by reducing the spread of viral materials from an infected person and by reducing the chances of getting an infection.” 

The current mainstream narrative on COVID is that it’s no worse than a cold, so why should vaccinated folks bother to wear masks? The answer is that we still don’t know enough about this relatively new virus, first detected in late 2019. For example, a study published several weeks ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2022) found that even mild cases can change people’s brains. 

We also know that the aftereffects of COVID-19 can be debilitating for many individuals. Long COVID, which comprises an array of symptoms from fatigue to brain fog, affects an estimated 100 million people worldwide and is as disabling in children and teenagers as it is in adults (Nature, 2022). 

My points are that (1) Everyone should take measures to avoid catching COVID, and (2) wearing a proper mask properly in specific situations is one of the best measures. The situations are whenever you’re:  

  • on an airplane or using public transit. (Even if you’re vaccinated, you don’t know the vaccination status of the people around you.)  
  • outdoors and sitting or standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other people. (You should always wear a mask outside anytime you’re close to others and can’t feel the wind on your cheeks.) 
  • indoors in a small, crowded room, building, or space. (Is the ventilation system adequate? What is the height of the ceiling? If someone were smoking, would the smell quickly fill the air? If so, mask up.)**                               Source: New York Times, April 19, 2022 
How Do We Know Masks Work? 

Despite some people’s claims that masks don’t work, there are scientific studies that indicate masks are quite effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 (e.g., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2021; Stanford Medicine, 2021). The rationale behind wearing a mask is the same as that of covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, which many still consider to be common courtesy. 

Another argument in favor of mask-wearing can be made by comparing the COVID-19 death rates of two large industrialized countries. In one country, a high percentage of people wear masks in public. In the other country, a much lower percentage wear masks. 

 I first became acquainted with Japan’s mask culture on a flight from Newark to Tokyo in December 2018. The majority of Asian passengers wore masks the entire time they were on the plane, but I don’t recall seeing a single Westerner with a mask. Surveys and reports suggest that wearing masks in public has become the norm in Japan during the pandemic.  

I’m sure most readers are aware that pandemic-related mask-wearing has never been very popular in the US. An international survey from two years ago asked participants how often they “wore a mask in public to protect against Covid-19 in the past seven days.” From May through early June 2020, the percent of Americans who said that they “always” wore a mask in public was approximately 50%, while the percent of Japanese respondents who responded “always” was around 75%.  

Although the number of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered per 100 Americans is comparable to the number of vaccines per 100 people in Japan, the rate of new COVID deaths per million people has been consistently and significantly higher in the US than in Japan throughout the pandemic. This is illustrated in the graphs below, where the dark line represents the US and the reddish-brown line represents Japan. 

The first graph shows that since September 2021, the number of doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered per 100 people in the US and Japan have been similar. The graph at the bottom compares the number of new COVID deaths per day for every million people in both countries. As you can see, Japan’s COVID death rate per million people has never been over two deaths on a single day, while the US has seen the daily death rate per million people soar above Japan numerous times during a two-year period (Our World in Data, 2022).

Of course, this doesn’t prove that masks work. Even nonstatistical folks know correlation does not imply causation. I’m just giving an example of how societies that value cooperation and being considerate of their fellow citizens have fared better during the pandemic than we have in our country, the world leader in COVID-19 deaths. Masking up regularly probably has something to do with the difference.

Why Settle for Less Than the Best? 

In all honesty, wearing a mask for an extended period of time is one of my least favorite things. The worst part is that the straps eventually make my ears sore. Soon after I found out cloth masks are not that effective, I began looking at N95 masks with straps that went over the head instead of behind the ears. 

My first batch of N95 masks was from Home Depot. I wasn’t crazy about the blue elastic bands, which tended to break. I preferred the next batch – “N95 Respirator, Fish Style Headband, Made in USA” – purchased from Amazon. With cloth-covered elastic straps and a snugger fit, the masks were more comfortable and I felt safer. If you want information about high-quality masks, check out these articles:  

Obviously, this piece is more than just an announcement. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for additional blog posts from Edjacent. If you would like to receive notices when there are new posts, join our mailing list here.

  * COVID vaccines are not 100% effective at preventing COVID-19, but fully vaccinated people who get infected experience milder symptoms and are far less likely to be hospitalized and/or die than the unvaccinated (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022).

** If you think this description matches a typical classroom in a typical American school building, you’re right. I strongly recommend mask-wearing in schools. To see what the experts have to say, read “Is It Really Safe to End Mask Mandates in Schools?” (Yale Medicine, 2022).

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