COVID-19 & Masks: A Breakdown of Issues

| July 7, 2020

VENANGO CO., Pa. (EYT) – With Pennsylvania recently joining the growing list of states mandating the wearing of masks in public, many questions regarding the efficacy of masks and the legalities of the mandates remain.

Efficacy of Masks

Some of the confusion regarding the effectiveness of masks in helping slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic was created by health organizations that have reversed course on earlier statements regarding the use of masks.

Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are currently recommending masks for the general public, which is a change from their stance earlier in the pandemic when they recommended the opposite. This change in direction has led to many questions from the general public.

“We have to admit it, that that mixed message in the beginning, even though it was well meant to allow masks to be available for health workers, that was detrimental in getting the message across,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a recent interview with NPR.

However, Fauci is supporting the change in direction.

“We have to do things a bit differently than what we’ve been doing,” he went on to say, noting that people gathering in crowds in bars and other venues, without distancing or wearing masks, have most likely contributed to recent surges on COVID-19 cases across the nation.

Fauci is just one of many public health officials backing the use of masks.

“The problem is that people are not wearing masks. You go out and everywhere you look they’re not wearing masks,” Dr. Stephen Blatt, medical director for Infectious Disease at TriHealth Hospitals in Cincinnati, stated in a recent interview with NBC.

Several laboratory studies on the issue, including a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine and a study published in Nature Medicine, have shown that masks can block respiratory droplets and reduce the amount of virus emitted via droplets and aerosols.

However, not all of the experts agree.

The New York Times noted that a group of scientists recently called on the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet to retract a paper supporting the effectiveness of masks, which they argue contains “egregious errors” and “verifiably false” statements.

According to Mission Local, Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and a Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota, also recently criticized what he called an “increasing number of poorly conducted and inadequately reviewed studies getting published in rapid succession.” He went on to state evidence on the efficacy of cloth masks remains “limited.”

Despite some disagreement, the vast majority of medical professionals appear to be in support of wearing masks to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

“People need to know that wearing masks can reduce transmission of the virus by as much as 50%, and those who refuse are putting their lives, their families, their friends, and their communities at risk,” Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, recently told CNN.

Governor Tom Wolf recently stated that the order to make mask-wearing mandatory when leaving home was put in place to protect all Pennsylvanians from the spread of coronavirus.

“This simple practice, combined with social distancing, handwashing, and staying home if sick, is paramount to stopping this virus from infecting more people. I again urge Pennsylvanians to mask up for the protection of everyone,” Wolf explained.

Legal Questions Regarding Mask Mandates

The mask mandates in Pennsylvania and many other states, including Oregon, North Carolina, California, Nevada, Rhode Island, New York, Delaware, Connecticut, New Mexico, Illinois, and Washington, have also brought up another question: Can the government legally force Americans to wear masks?

Surgeon General Jerome Adams recently argued that rather than infringing on civil liberties, wearing a mask can actually restore freedoms more quickly during the ongoing pandemic.

“It is not a suppression of your freedom. It actually is a vehicle to achieve our goals,” he stated during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing last week, according to The Hill.

“It adds to your convenience and your freedom because it allows us to open up more places, and it allows those places to stay open. This mask, this face covering, actually is an instrument of freedom for Americans if we all use it.”

James Hodge, director of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law’s Center for Public Health Law and Policy, recently told KTAR News that arguments that mask mandates violate civil liberties are “baseless.”

“The government has sufficient, compelling interest to limit the spread of a disease like COVID-19 that does kill hundreds of thousands of Americans, and will continue to do so absent intervention,” Hodge stated.

However, some other public officials do not agree.

Florida State Representative Anthony Sabatini filed a lawsuit against Hillsborough County over its mask ordinance recently, according to Bay News 9.

Sabatini is arguing that mask ordinances are a violation of due process, privacy laws, and equal protection.

At a recent Young Republicans event, he stated, “They are using a status of an emergency to jam down new rules and laws that have no bearing on our health or safety.”

While the arguments for and against masks among public officials and lawmakers most often fall along partisan lines, with more Republicans than Democrats standing against the wearing of masks rather than in favor of it, some notable officials have crossed that line.

“We must have no stigma, none, about wearing masks when we leave our homes and come near other people. Wearing simple face coverings is not about protecting ourselves, it is about protecting everyone we encounter,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor on Monday.

Pennsylvania’s Mandate: When Does It Require Masks?

The mask order in Pennsylvania specifies that individuals are required to wear face coverings if they are:

A. Outdoors and unable to consistently maintain a distance of six feet from individuals who are not members of their household;

B. In any indoor location where members of the public are generally permitted;

C. Waiting for, riding on, driving, or operating public transportation or paratransit or while in a taxi, private car service or ride-sharing vehicle;

D. Obtaining services from the healthcare sector in settings including, but not limited to, a hospital, pharmacy, medical clinic, laboratory, physician or dental office, veterinary clinic, or blood bank; or

E. Engaged in work, whether at the workplace or performing work off-site, when interacting in-person with any member of the public, working in any space visited by members of the public, working in any space where food is prepared or packaged for sale or distribution to others, working in or walking through common areas, or in any room or enclosed area where other people, except for members of the person’s own household or residence, are present where unable to physically distance.

However, the order offers the following exceptions to the requirement:

1. Individuals who cannot wear a mask due to a medical condition, including those with respiratory issues that impede breathing, mental health condition, or disability;

2. Individuals for whom wearing a mask while working would create an unsafe condition in which to operate equipment or execute a task as determined by local, state, or federal regulators or workplace safety guidelines;

3. Individuals who would be unable to remove a mask without assistance;

4. Individuals who are under two years of age; and

5. Individuals who are communicating or seeking to communicate with someone who is hearing-impaired or has another disability, where the ability to see the mouth is essential for communication.

The order also notes that individuals are not required to show documentation that an exception applies.

According to the Department of Health, the order requires individuals to wear a “face covering,” in both indoor public places and in the outdoors when they are not able to consistently maintain social distancing from individuals who are not members of their household, such as on a busy sidewalk, waiting in line to enter a place, or near others at any place people are congregating.

In this instance, a “face covering” means a covering of the nose and mouth that is secured to the head with ties, straps, or loops over the ears or is wrapped around the lower face. A “face covering” can be made of a variety of synthetic or natural fabrics, including cotton, silk, or linen, and, for the purposes of the order, can include a plastic face shield that covers the nose and mouth. “Face coverings” may be factory-made, sewn by hand, or improvised from household items, including but not limited to, scarves, bandanas, t-shirts, sweatshirts, or towels. According to the Department of Health, while procedural and surgical masks intended for health care providers and first responders, such as N95 respirators, would meet these requirements, these specialized masks should be reserved for appropriate occupational and health care settings.

More specifics on the order and its requirements are available here.

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