On Your Health

Check back to the INTEGRIS On Your Health blog for the latest health and wellness news for all Oklahomans.

Why Is Wearing a Mask So Important?

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt announced last week he had tested positive for the coronavirus and is the first governor in the U.S. known to have been infected during the pandemic. His announcement coincided with another dismaying first – it happened on the same day Oklahoma set a record of 1075 new cases in one day. 

To put that in context, there have been 25,265 cases of COVID-19 in Oklahoma and 451 deaths so far. To compare with other significant Oklahoma events, the 2019-2020 flu season killed 85 Oklahomans, 36 people were killed in Moore during the May 1999 tornado, and 168 people died in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

As the largest health system in Oklahoma, INTEGRIS Health has an obligation to set the standard for safety and quality, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the coronavirus is so serious, with severe consequences for people of all ages, INTEGRIS continues to support a policy of universal masking across the system. This means all caregivers, providers, patients and patient representatives must wear a face mask while on INTEGRIS property. 

Fellow Oklahomans look to INTEGRIS caregivers for guidance and medical advice. As the number of coronavirus cases continues to grow at an alarming rate across Oklahoma, using a mask, along with other preventive measures such as social distancing and frequent handwashing, has been scientifically proven to slow community spread. That’s why INTEGRIS has strongly urged all caregivers to make it their personal responsibility to wear a mask when out in public as well as in the hospital, and why the health system is encouraging all citizens across the state to join in and wear a mask for their own sakes and the sake of others.

Here is INTEGRIS Health’s official statement on masks: “The number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continues to rise, causing capacity constraints at health systems across the state. INTEGRIS Health supports three social interventions that have proven to slow the spread of the virus. These include social distancing, hand hygiene and community masking. If local government officials were to issue mask mandates, we would support the effort. Local resources are already approaching their limits and if nothing is done to mitigate the spread of this disease infected individuals will fill our hospitals, overwhelm our ICUs and help will not be available to those who need it.”

Addressing the Confusion

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization now recommend that everyone over the age of two wear a mask while in public settings. 

Earlier in the pandemic both organizations recommended the opposite, which has caused confusion among the public about the effectiveness of masks. But why did these recommendations evolve? Evolution is a basic tenet of scientific inquiry. Scientists let their opinions develop and transform as better information becomes available.

In the beginning, there was legitimate concern in the health care community that the limited supply of surgical masks and N95 respirators needed to be saved for health care workers. Also earlier in the pandemic, scientists understood little about the scope of the coronavirus spread, so the original CDC guidance was partly based on what was thought to be low disease occurrence.

But the CDC changed its guidance in favor of masks as more people became infected and scientists gained a clearer understanding that both pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmissions were common. Viral load peaks in the days before symptoms begin and speaking is enough to expel virus-carrying droplets.

The Science of Masks

As more has been learned about the spread of COVID-19, there has been a growing body of evidence showing just how effective masks can be. Health experts also say the science is clear that the more people wearing masks, the better. 

An analysis of respiratory infections and mask effectiveness by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) suggests a reduction in infection by at least one-third for mask-wearers compared to control groups. This analysis supports the growing scientific consensus that cloth masks, whether homemade or commercial, can reduce respiratory virus infections by 33 percent and slow community spread of COVID-19.

The latest forecast from IHME is projecting more than 200,000 deaths in the United States by November 1. That number drops to less than 165,000 if at least 95 percent of people wear masks in public. 

"We know this virus is transmitted via droplets and contact. We know we inadvertently spread droplets when we speak, sneeze or cough. We know there are individuals who are spreading the virus and do not know they have it," said Finny Mathew, an executive at INTEGRIS Health. "We also know, from decades of experience as health care providers, that masking helps prevent the spread of droplet-based diseases. While new to the public, this has been standard practice in the hospital setting for many years.”

Really, it’s just common sense that wearing a face covering can block the transmission of infected droplets. More people wearing masks results in better protection for everyone. For a fascinating look at why masks work, watch this video from PBS.

To summarize in a nutshell, here are three quick reasons to wear a mask:

  • To protect your loved ones: When you wear a mask you protect others by preventing the spread of your own germs.
  • To protect the community: More people wearing masks results in better protection for everyone.
  • Your COVID-19 status is unknown: You may have COVID-19 or have been exposed to the virus without showing symptoms.

More Good Reasons to Wear a Mask

The U.S. can reverse course more quickly

The U.S. Surgeon General is the “Nation’s Doctor,” providing Americans with the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce the risk of illness and injury. The Surgeon General oversees the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, an elite group of over 6,000 uniformed officers who are public health professionals. The USPHS mission is to protect, promote, and advance the health of the nation. 

Surgeon General Jerome Adams said last week that the U.S. can reverse course and control the latest outbreaks of the coronavirus in just a few weeks if people follow guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus. “There are more studies coming out (all the time) showing the effectiveness of face coverings,” Adams said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” 

“Just as we've seen cases skyrocket, we can turn this thing around in two to three weeks if we can get a critical mass of people wearing face coverings, practicing at least six feet of social distancing, doing the things that we know are effective,” he said. 

The economy can recover more quickly

The CDC agrees. “The more individuals wear cloth face coverings in public places where they may be close together, the more the entire community is protected,” Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and two colleagues wrote in an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association, published last week. 

Face masks would allow states to more safely ease school and business closings. Redfield told a JAMA Live webcast last week, “If we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really think in the next four, six, eight weeks, we could bring this epidemic under control.” With the virus under control, stay-at-home orders could be cancelled, kids could safely go back to school, businesses could reopen, and people’s lives and the economy could return a little closer to “normal.”

Young people can safely socialize again

Older adults were more likely to contract coronavirus in the first few months of the pandemic, but now data shows that as Oklahoma reopened bars, stores and restaurants in May and June, COVID-19 cases began to rapidly climb among young adults. The Oklahoma State Department of Health reports that 36 percent of all the COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma have been from young adults ages 18 – 35. 

The assumption that younger people are less likely to have serious underlying medical conditions, which means they are less likely to experience serious side effects from the coronavirus, may not hold true as meaningful research becomes available. Although this group currently only accounts for two percent of coronavirus deaths in Oklahoma, a new study published just this week in the Journal of Adolescent Health said that one in three young adults may be at risk of severe COVID-19, especially if they smoke or vape. Going forward, a person’s youth may not shield him or her from serious disease.

Just as important, public health officials also worry that young, asymptomatic carriers, or those suffering only mild cases, will still spread the virus to more vulnerable populations. There are numerous studies that show the vulnerable are likely to experience much more severe outcomes, including death.

It’s the Oklahoma Standard

The “Oklahoma Standard” was first written about by journalists and shared by first responders in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. It was there that the world saw what it meant to be an “Okie" — kind, resourceful, supportive, and not afraid of sacrifice. It has been described as the people of Oklahoma standing up time and again in the midst of adversity and giving themselves, their time and their skills to others without having to be asked. 

As Dr. Jeffrey Cruzan, Medical Director of the INTEGRIS Medical Group eloquently says, “Oklahomans are great at taking care of each other and coming to support each other. Wearing a mask is not a political statement. It’s the right thing to do. It’s doing what's good for the whole, not just for yourself.”

Words like these are important, but actions are perhaps the most impactful. Now is the time to draw upon the Oklahoma Standard once more; to love thy neighbor and protect thy neighbor. In this case, the sacrifice is a small one and really is just an inconvenience for most. All Oklahomans can step up and do their part to help prevent the spread of the virus simply by wearing a mask.

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