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Wearing of masks is critical to protect health

| November 17, 2021 1:00 AM

It has been with increasing dismay that I have viewed the controversy over COVID-19 protective measures being instituted in the Whitefish School District – especially the objections raised about the masking mandate for K-6 students. It seems that the arguments have become stridently ideological and political rather than rational. It also seems that the protection against illness and death has become a low priority in the minds of many of those protesting. The only motive for our actions should be the protection of health and life using methods based on the best science to date. I am a layperson with a technical background and have found that there is a wealth of good, rational, understandable information out there for those willing to look for it.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease. The principal mechanism for transmission is exhaled breath from the infected person. That exhaled breath consists of air and millions of tiny droplets of moisture of various sizes (aerosol) which carry viruses along for the ride to our noses and mouths.

The impacts of COVID-19 are well known to us now. Illness and death. Economic and social harm. How many children have lost family members, guardians, and the support they provide? Our health care system has been extremely stressed with doctors, nurses and other health providers operating under unimaginable pressure and burnout.

If you get COVID-19 you are 4 times more likely to be hospitalized and 16 times more likely to die than from regular influenza. In Montana, of the 185,176 confirmed cases of COVID to date, 5% have been hospitalized at an average cost of around $50,000 per patient. Of those hospitalized 26% have died. COVID-19 is the third highest cause of death in Montana behind heart disease and cancer.

For the last several weeks Montana has had the dubious distinction of ranking in the top 9 states for the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases per capita in the nation. In mid-October, Montana ranked the highest. Montana ranked 3rd for COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 during the week of Nov. 8-11.

We get false signals every day that would appear to tell us that the pandemic is over and we can resume normal activities. TV ads, sports events, social media, large concerts, stores, bars, restaurants, etc. are all filled with images and behaviors that indicate disregard for social distancing, masking, and other protections from COVID-19 spread. Unfortunately, we don’t get corresponding daily images of hospital hallways and intensive care units showing suffering COVID-19 patients to counteract these depictions.

Scientists tell us that only when “herd immunity” is achieved will the virus be controlled enough to allow us to return to pre-2019 lifestyles. Herd immunity means that a large enough percentage of the population has achieved immunity — either through surviving the disease or vaccinations — that the virus has no place to go. Becoming infected with COVID-19 to achieve herd immunity is a method filled with pain, suffering, death and disruption to our families, economy, health system and social institutions. The best solution is vaccination – which is free, available, and effective.

Montana’s rate for complete COVID-19 vaccinations still hovers around 55% of those who are eligible. Flathead County’s vaccination rate is even lower at 46%. Until we achieve sufficient vaccination levels we must try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 via social distancing and control of the respiratory aerosol from infected persons. This can be best done with masking. Masks work by confining the aerosol to the close vicinity of the mask wearer. They should be worn by all. Remember, you can be infectious without having symptoms.

While the young typically have less severe COVID-19 impacts when ill they do catch the disease and can spread it to others in school and in the community. In-school learning is desirable but does concentrate children close to other students and staff. Care must be taken to prevent the in-school spread of COVID-19. It is true that Phizer has received approval for its pediatric vaccine. However, it will take months to complete the vaccination process for these kids. Even then it is unlikely that the childrens’ vaccination rate will exceed that for adults in the county.

The CDC cites two recent studies of mask effectiveness in schools in 522 counties that show COVID-19 outbreaks were 2 to 3.5 times more likely in schools without masking mandates.

Some parents have argued that they, not the school, have the responsibility for the health of their children. I submit that the school systems have a responsibility to provide a safe, healthy environment for all students, staff, and visitors. Flathead County has had more than 1,100 COVID-19 cases among children aged 0 to 9. Those children are likely to have interacted with their families, the public, and other children possibly contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in the county.

Those in positions of power and authority must act rationally and wisely based on the best available scientific and medical guidance to protect our students, families, friends, and fellow Montana citizens with health and safety as the priority. The Whitefish School Board has done just that. They deserve our thanks and praise.

Charles Davis, Whitefish