Mask up or stay shut down

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Mask up or stay shut downUpdated on July 2, 2020

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The best way to contain COVID-19 outbreaks while allowing people to move as freely about the community as possible is to adhere to state mandates for wearing masks while in public.

Although healthcare and government officials continue to urge members of the public to take this precaution, the concept has become a center of controversy in communities across the country — including ours.

On June 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered Californians to wear masks outside of their homes — particularly in public spaces where social distancing cannot be maintained. Still, California’s numbers have continued to tick up. Last week, Kern County Administrative Officer said that masks are a dealbreaker for remaining open.

Newsom cited an increased positivity trend in Kern and 18 other counties to justify closing their indoor public gathering spaces on Wednesday (see related story). Proponents of masks continue to say that the only safe way to reopen is to ensure everyone wears a mask.

“Masks are not only supposed to protect you by wearing them, but they are meant to protect everyone else. Let’s take care of each other and make sure we stay safe and healthy,” said Michelle Walley, administrator of the Rural Health Clinics at Ridgecrest Regional Hospital.

“I’m thankful to the people who care enough about each other to wear them. We are all in this together.”

RRH CEO Jim Suver said that Ridgecrest enjoyed a very low incidence of coronavirus in the Indian Wells Valley for the first few months after the pandemic was declared. “Our community really did a wonderful job — especially early on — following precautions,” he said.

In the last edition of the News Review, RRH reported that some 1,200 tests had yielded 13 positive results (though many of those were pending at press time.) By Thursday afternoon, RRH had conducted 1,824 tests resulting in 35 positives. Results were still pending from 546 test samples.

“Information is golden, especially during a crisis like this. Publishing the results allows individuals to make an informed decision. Those who feel they are particularly at risk can choose to stay home,” said Suver.

Unfortunately, our low numbers may have also contributed to complacency when it comes to adhering to the necessary precautions, he said. “I am still very supportive of us reopening our economy — I have not changed on that. But it only works if individuals take the responsibility to protect themselves and others, and the most effective way to do that is by wearing a mask.”

The trouble, he said, is that the requirement is impossible to enforce.

“We have had several problems at the hospital with patients refusing to wear masks. What people don’t seem to understand is that masks don’t just protect you, they protect our doctors, our staff and other patients,” said Suver.

“This is really a community game, and it takes all of us working together to protect our vulnerable population. The fact that so many people are unwilling to follow the guidelines is somewhat disheartening.”

At press time, the death toll in the United States from COVID-19 was above 131,000. The illness had claimed the lives of 6,168 Californians — 77 of whom reside in Kern County.

“We are not immune in our community to people dying in our hospital from COVID,” said Suver. The disease carries with it violent symptoms that are horrible to witness, especially when someone expires.

“Why would we want any family to experience this kind of heartbreak if we could avoid it by such simple measures?”

Suver said that he believes there are two major factors to the casual adherence to safety protocols — the pre-outbreak numbers make individuals feel immune, and very few human stories about the illness have come out.

“In healthcare, we witness the toll of the disease. But it is up to individuals to decide whether they want to share these stories. I just hope that people choose to listen when our doctors and nurses share the traumatic impacts on patients — even the ones who pull through.”

Some of the public skepticism appears to stem from mixed reports or lack of detail. Suver acknowledged that the data tracked by Kern County (kernpublichealth.com/covid-19_dashboard) and RRH (rrh.org/patients-visitors/coronavirus-updates) are based on different metrics — the former reporting the residence of patients and the latter confirming positive samples collected locally.

“Trying to reconcile the two numbers is fruitless,” said Suver. “I don’t care if a person lives in Ridgecrest. If we ran their test at RRH, it means that person was here and in contact with our population. Because it’s the hospital’s responsibility to provide care for our citizens, we think that information is important for them to have.”

Suver also echoed the sentiment of healthcare stewards across the country who have warned that by the time significant trends in the data begin to surface, it is almost too late to influence a reversal. “This virus spreads so quickly. The current model Kern County is tracking shows that we are going to hit our capacity, countywide, by late July.”

So far, the numbers have not been extraordinarily high, said Suver. But that could change quickly.

One disturbing trend in Kern is that more than 58 percent of cases are attributed to one of four age demographics being tracked (age 18-49).

“Our younger residents are the ones who are more likely to be asymptomatic carriers, but this is also the most socially active group,” said Suver. “This is why the virus has the potential to spread so quickly.”

An individual who may not know that he carries the disease, and moves about freely without taking precautions, can singlehandedly trigger a surge.

“One of the things that has made the United States so successful is our spirit of independence. But with that freedom of personal choice comes a responsibility to exercise it for the good of your community,” said Suver.

“We have not had a significant public health crisis in our country during our lifetimes, so this is a new concept for most of us.”

However, it is not without precedent. In the late 1800s, Mary Mallon was a cook who infected dozens of people with typhoid, although she was an asymptomatic carrier of the disease. She was prohibited from engaging in that trade, since it posed a threat to the public. She continued to do so, and was subsequently imprisoned. Laws were passed to protect the public from similar incidents.

“It’s like our drunk-driving laws — you don’t have the right to make a choice that puts someone else in danger,” said Suver.

“Individual freedom is a critical component of our culture. But there are times where we have to temper our perception of our personal rights with our obligation to protect others.”

Suver acknowledged that it is impossible to avoid COVID entirely in our community. “But overall, we have some simple ways to protect our vulnerable people — masking, social distancing, avoiding large gatherings, maintaining good hygiene.”

And it’s dependent upon cohesive adherence.

“There is still a lot we do not know about the disease. For now, we do the best we can with the information we have. When our information is better, we will be able to do better. But the bottom line is it takes all of us working together.”

Pictured: A local family masks up for a walk in the community. — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2020-06-30