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Reporter’s Notebook: Masking a serious issue

CHARLESTON — A handful of people took me to task last Wednesday when I asked Gov. Jim Justice a question about masks, not liking the tone of my question.

The issues of masks and face coverings came after Justice once again warned the public about coronavirus outbreaks tied to several churches in the state.

Despite being asked to socially distance, sit in every other pew, avoid touching each other and wearing masks, it would seem some members of these churches have chosen to go the old snake-handler route and put the health and wellbeing of their fellow churchgoers in the hands of God. That might be a harsh assessment, but what else can explain it?

Now, these new COVID-19 cases are not really indicative of anything. I suspect most of this summer is going to be a game of whack-a-mole for state and county health officials trying to keep small outbreaks from turning into big outbreaks. If anything, what we’re finding these small clusters is a sign that our health system is working. This is the way that it’s going to be until better treatments come along or a vaccine.

Until then, masks are the best line of defense. No, you don’t need to wear them all the time. No, you really don’t need to wear them simply for being outside. I still don’t understand people who wear their masks when driving within their own ecosystem of their vehicle. But if you know you’re going to be in proximity of people, inside or outside and especially if you’re going to be around strangers, then wearing a mask is vital.

No, you’re not doing it to keep from contracting COVID-19. You’re doing it to keep the water vapor droplets that we all expel from our mouths anytime we talk, cough, sneeze or sing from going into the air. Because there’s a good chance you or I have COVID and don’t realize it. We’re either asymptomatic or the symptoms are so mild we write it off as a cold or allergies.

It’s all about trying to protect those who are at most risk of serious coronavirus symptoms, such as people over the age of 60 and those with pre-existing medical conditions. In West Virginia, the average age of those who have died from COVID-19 is 76. I bet if I asked the age of people in an average church in West Virginia, I bet it would be close to that.

Most medical experts, including Dr. Clay Marsh of West Virginia University, say if at least 60 percent of the public uses masks, it would go a long way in keeping the transmission rates for the virus low. Unfortunately, mask-wearing has become politicized.

I was accused of politicizing the mask-wearing issue last week with my question to Justice on how to find the middle ground on mask-wearing. Another reporter asked if we should make masks mandatory. I agree with Justice that mandating masks would likely have the opposite effect and make people less inclined to wear them. At the same time, people are tuning out Justice, Marsh and other who consistently advocate for the public to wear masks.

“There’s got to be a step in between mandating (masks)…and educating people more,” I asked. “To some extent, mask-wearing has become part of this greater culture war that you see out there with maybe some Trump voters that specifically won’t wear a mask because they feel like they don’t want to be told what to do by the liberal media.”

I didn’t ask it that way because I have a beef with supporters of President Donald Trump or a bias one way or another (I’m often amused when I’m accused of having liberal bias as I’ve also been accused of being a Republican operative and a Koch-funded shill during my journalism career). Frankly, I asked the question that way because I’m observing the politicization of masks all the time.

The Wall Street Journal reported an interview with Trump last week. On one hand, Trump said he was OK with people who wanted to wear masks. On the other hand, he called mask-wearing a double-edged sword and immediately mocked former Vice President Joe Biden for wearing a mask.

“I see Biden. It’s like his whole face is covered,” Trump said. “It’s like he put a knapsack over his face. He probably likes it that way. He feels good that way because he does. He seems to feel good in a mask, you know, feels better than he does without the mask, which is a strange situation.”

Anecdotally, there are stories after stories of incidents where business owners have had to deal with irate customers upset that they can’t get service or enter an establishment without a mask. A Trump supporter had to be removed from an airplane because he refused to wear a mask. At least one person, a security guard, was shot several weeks ago for simply telling someone to wear their mask. In many ways, mask-wearing is the new anti-vaccine movement.

On the other hand, it doesn’t help that health experts were largely silent on mass protesters after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Several weeks of protests, some violent, have brought out thousands of people, many of whom are not social distancing or wearing masks. Only in the last few days have health experts started to raise the alarm and warn people to get tested.

And just this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the president’s coronavirus task force, said that early announcements back in March that face masks were not necessary was simply an effort to keep people from ordering masks that frontline health professionals needed and prevent hoarding. You almost can’t blame people for not trusting the health experts when they say to wear masks.

Unfortunately, mask-wearing has been politicized so that when our local leaders and health experts say to wear masks, they’re being tuned out and ignored. State officials need to come up with a new plan, a new marketing strategy, to get the public on board mask-wearing. Otherwise the second wave, when it comes, could be worse than the first wave.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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