By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
On a blustery Seattle Friday, I found myself on a King County Metro bus out of downtown Seattle, smack in the middle of a conversation about coronavirus —recently named COVID-19. Figures of the people affected and the number of lives it claimed flew fast. Our camaraderie, rare for a peak-hour Seattle bus ride, ground to an abrupt halt when a man wearing a face mask got on board.
In the sudden silence, I wondered if it was foolhardy not to wear a surgical mask myself.
For many Asians, a face mask helps us breathe easier when air quality levels are low. The masks, however, also remind us of the peak of the SARS pandemic. When a quick Amazon search for surgical face masks threw up ‘Stocks Unavailable,’ I was a little worried, but there was no reason for my concern as health officials in the state and county convinced me.
While the number of surgical face masks on the streets of Seattle and on public transportation may have increased, the number of confirmed cases in Washington still stands at one. State and county health authorities underscore that the threat level in Washington is low and the disease isn’t spreading here.
Danny Li, a tech worker, takes the bus from Issaquah Highlands into Seattle every day. Li chooses to wear a surgical face mask, despite knowing the risk of contracting the illness in Seattle is low.
“I began wearing the mask around three weeks ago when reports of the coronavirus outbreak in China started coming in. It makes me feel safe. I’d rather wear the mask and protect myself,” he said.
Harborview Medical Center’s Associate Medical Director John Lynch has seen more than several people in Seattle wearing masks.
“There is no known benefit to wearing surgical masks (the simple mask most wear). These are good to prevent the transmission of colds and the flu,” Lynch said.
Lynch notices most people outside of hospitals touch the mask, then touch their faces (nose, mouth, and eyes). “They end up transferring whatever is on the mask to their face. People also tend to take them on and off without good reason—the general public is not trained in risk assessment in this area,” he said.
A spokesperson from Washington State Department of Health said, “As of now, we are not recommending people wear masks when in public. There is currently no evidence that the virus is spreading in Washington or anywhere in the United States. The health risk is low.” However, he feels if anyone feels comfortable wearing a mask, it’s their right to wear one. “They can, but we are not recommending they do,” he said.
Backing him up, Heather Thomas of the Snohomish Health District said, “Right now, public health isn’t recommending or suggesting people wear masks in public unless they themselves are sick. If you are in a clinic or waiting room or if you are not feeling well, that’s when you should be wearing a mask. Rushing out and purchasing a mask is really not necessary right now.”
The Washington State Department of Health is aware that people are buying surgical masks and that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is keeping an eye on any shortages.
“They are aware of and are concerned that people buying these masks for personal use is putting a strain on the supply. But it hasn’t come up as a serious problem for anything that we are dealing with at this time,” the spokesperson said.
Thomas thinks there is a lot we don’t know about the novel coronavirus and reading the news can seem distressing and unsettling.
“I can see that people purchasing masks might feel like something that they can do, that they have control over. So, I can see why people are doing it.”
While stressing that the novel coronavirus is not spreading in communities in the United States now, and that the risk to the public is low, James Apa, communications director at Public Health – Seattle and King County, said, “People wear masks for a variety of reasons, including to avoid pollen and air pollution, as a courtesy to others when they have the common cold, and for other cultural and even social reasons. Because mask use is customary in some cultures, it’s not appropriate to make assumptions about why someone is wearing a mask or to stigmatize or discriminate against people who choose to wear masks.”
Thomas emphasized that there was no need for masks in Seattle at the moment.
“The best thing you can do to prevent getting sick is to wash your hands frequently. Cover your cough, cover your sneezes, if you’re not feeling well stay home, sanitize door handles, faucets, and commonly used things like remote controls,” she said.
The spokesperson for Washington State Department of Health added, “If people have a mask and they feel better wearing it, that is fine.”
He understands that some people in the community have residual fears from past events (such as SARS). “We are trying our best to make sure we give them the most up-to-date information. We have terrific information on the state website and the CDC has good preventative information so people can protect themselves,” he said.
As for masks that are effective against viruses, Lynch said, “We have masks, including what we call respirator masks, that are thicker and require testing to make sure they fit. There is also another type of respirator you may have read about in the newspapers, about the patient in Everett. These are hoods supplied with filtered air. Both types of respirators are ones recommended for healthcare workers if caring for a patient with COVID-19.”
Even though we’re at a low risk of contracting COVID–19, news of the spread of the pandemic can sometimes leave us anxious. Even then, it’s important to remember that at the time of this report, 12,681 people who were infected by the virus have recovered while 1,873 have succumbed to it.
The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins Universtiy is tracking the virus and has a dashboard (systems.jhu.edu) to keep you updated about the changing scenario across the world.
To prevent the spread of respiratory viruses:
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Use good respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene in all community settings, including homes, childcare facilities, schools, workplaces, and other places where people gather.
- Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue and put the used tissue in a waste basket. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve, not your hands.
- Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (with at least 60-95% alcohol).
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.
- Practice other good health habits. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work, or school, especially when someone is ill. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.
Janice can be reached at email@example.com.
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Here’s how to wear a mask the right way from World Health Organization: