When symbolism turns deadly

Science should not be politicized, especially when it’s a matter of life and death.

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that, if United States citizens across the nation wore masks when close to other people, the coronavirus could be brought under control in two months.

Unfortunately, we have a president who often works against science and for critical months, as the virus spread, he largely and conspicuously refused to wear a face mask in public. On Tuesday, in his first televised coronavirus press conference in weeks, Trump made a 180-degree turn from his earlier stance that wearing a mask was a statement against him and urged Americans to do so.

We hope his followers were listening because, also on Tuesday, more than 1,100 Americans died of COVID-19.

Last week, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the CDC reviewed the latest science and affirmed that cloth face coverings are a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19 that could reduce the spread of the disease.

“We are not defenseless against COVID-19,” said CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield. “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus — particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”

The review included two new studies, one showing that adherence to universal masking policies reduced transmission of COVID-19 within a Boston hospital system, and one from CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, showing that wearing a mask prevented the spread of infection from hair stylists to their customers in Missouri.

Science is ever-evolving. As more research is undertaken of a disease that is new, more facts about it are learned. The journal of the American Medical Association described the evolving thinking on wearing masks.

Early in the pandemic, the CDC recommended that anyone symptomatic for suspected COVID-19 should wear a face covering during transport to medical care and prior to isolation to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets.

After emerging data documented transmission of coronavirus disease 2019 from people without symptoms, the recommendation was expanded to the general community, with an emphasis on cloth face coverings that could be made more widely available in the community than surgical masks and to preserve personal protective equipment, such as N95 respirators, for health-care workers.

Now, there is ample evidence that people without symptoms spread infection and may be the critical driver needed to maintain epidemic momentum. About 40 percent of people with COVID-19 do not have symptoms and so can unwittingly pass the disease to others.

And yet, mask compliance varies widely by political viewpoint, according to a recent poll by National Geographic and Morning Consult. Seventy-five percent of polled Democrats say they always wear a mask in public compared with 46 percent of Republicans.

Similarly, 74 percent of liberals wear a mask compared to 64 percent of moderates and 48 percent of conservatives.

Also, 39 percent of people who “strongly approve” of the job Donald Trump is doing as president say they always wear a mask in public — 16 percent say they never do — while 73 percent of people who “strongly disapprove” of the job Trump is doing say they always wear a mask; 2 percent say they never do. 

The United States’ per-capita infection rate is now the highest of any developed country in the world. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Our federal government has no clear message for citizens to follow but has rather left handling the coronavirus crisis up to individual states. The Republican governor of Georgia has recently brought legal action to keep Atlanta and other municipalities from instituting requirements for wearing masks.

On July 13, we wrote about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s press briefing, announcing that New York State was deploying testing and contact-tracing teams to Atlanta as the city has spikes in COVID-19 cases. 

“I had no idea that we would have to go it alone in so many ways,” said Atlanta’s Democratic mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms. “I thought that it was more geared toward the lack of leadership we have at the federal level, but it has been equally challenging at the statewide level.”

She also said, “We’re headed in the wrong direction. So the city, we’ve recommended we go back to phase one, which is essentially a stay-at-home order. Also, we’ve instituted a mask mandate … Unless we have a coordinated approach across this country, we are going to continue to unnecessarily watch people die.

“And what makes it even more frustrating and even more disappointing, we didn’t have to look to Italy; we could look to New York, and you told us very clearly that, if we didn’t do things differently in our cities and states, we will find ourselves in the same situation that New York was facing, and unfortunately you were correct because throughout the South especially we are getting there in rapid order.”

The New York Times on July 17 published a detailed map of where in the United States people are wearing masks. Given the results from the National Geographic poll we just detailed, it’s no surprise that the Times map shows mask use is high in the Northeast and the West, and lower in the Plains and parts of the South.

The Times article also says that “mask use is very high in the area around the city of Albany, where there was an early and intense outbreak of coronavirus.”

It’s true there was an intense outbreak in Albany in April. But we believe another reason the mask-use is high here is because the Albany County executive, Daniel McCoy, and the county’s health commissioner, Elizabeth Whalen, have held over a 100 daily press briefings with consistent messages on how to prevent the spread of the virus.

As the science evolved, Whalen stayed on top of it, updating her advice on mask-wearing. She also repeatedly demonstrated the correct way to wear a mask, covering the nose and mouth.

As the number of COVID-19 cases in Albany County declined, the press briefings tailed off to two a week. But starting last Tuesday, McCoy and Whalen were at it again, hammering home their message as the county saw an uptick in cases.

Most notably, a Fourth of July Party in backyards on Hudson Avenue in Albany attracted over 200 college-age students. According to McCoy, they weren’t keeping six feet from each other and they weren’t wearing masks. So far, 22 party-goers have tested positive for COVID-19 and the county is urging anyone who was at the party to get tested.

Most people in that age group have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all so, if they don’t get tested and quarantine for 14 days, they can unwittingly spread COVID-19 to others.

“We do not want to see people needlessly dying from this disease that could have been prevented by something as simple as wearing a face mask, washing our hands, and keeping social distance,” said Whalen.

We urge residents to heed her words. It doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat. It doesn’t matter if you are conservative or liberal. It doesn’t matter if you hate Trump or love him.

What matters is you could spread a disease that could kill someone if you don’t take the simple precaution of wearing a mask. It’s less likely that a cloth mask will help keep you from getting sick than it is the mask will prevent you from spreading the disease.

So wearing a mask is the ultimate act of selflessness. You do it to protect others, for the common good, not for yourself. If you weigh that against the minor inconvenience, you’ll see it’s the right thing to do, the only thing to do.

We’ll continue to cover the press briefings, reporting on the new cases each day and the hospitalizations that ultimately follow — fervently hoping that the message is heard.

What we don’t want to do is write any more obituaries like the one we wrote for a 58-year-old Altamont man who died of COVID-19. Craig Ciaccio was a resilient man who had a strong sense of right and wrong, his family said; they couldn’t even be with him when he died in the hospital.

He would care about others’ needs, not just his own, his sister told us. So think about him as you leave your house — take a mask with you and wear it. Just as you don’t know whose life you are taking — where the chain of infection will lead — nor do you know whose life you may save.

We have a common enemy here — a worldwide pandemic. If we follow the science, rather than splintering over political differences, we can control it. Even if we lack federal leadership, each of us as individuals can make a difference.

In June, Cuomo referenced new words added to the state seal in April: e pluribus unum — out of many, one. 

“The only way forward is if I protect you and you protect me,” he said. “I wear a mask for you and you wear a mask for me.”

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