Janine Everett

LNP Op-ed columnist Janine Everett, PhD, RN, is director of the Public Health Program at Franklin & Marshall College.

Lancaster County has officially “gone green” under Gov. Tom Wolf’s guidelines for the easing of the restrictions that were put into place to slow the spread of COVID-19.

(Note to readers: COVID-19 is the name to use; it’s not difficult to remember and any other nicknames range from unnecessary to harmful.)

As the county opens up and people move about more freely, it may feel to many as if the danger has passed. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Now, more than ever, we need to take precautions — including the consistent use of masks — to prevent the spread of disease.

The most recent numbers tell us that, in the U.S. we have had more than 2.4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 124,000 deaths. State numbers are similarly sobering, at more than 81,000 confirmed cases and nearly 6,600 deaths. New cases (and deaths) are reported each day. Those are the confirmed numbers; because tests are limited and still not available to everyone, it is safe to say we have had many more cases than have been officially recorded to date.

What do these numbers mean to the average person? In the classroom, we discuss how easily the humanity in a situation can be lost when infection numbers climb so high. Sometimes we stop seeing the people — the friends and loved ones, the parents, the children, the co-workers, the neighbors — in such unfathomably large numbers. So, please, take a moment to consider that each and every person who has become ill and has died as a result of COVID-19 is a real person with a real story, leaving behind people who are devastated by their untimely loss.

One such person is Lun Leung, 52, whose story of the husband and young daughters she has left behind was told in last Sunday’s LNP | LancasterOnline. Consider that there are more than 124,000 other stories in the U.S., each as heartbreaking as this one.

Back to the masks.

You have heard it before: “My mask protects you; your mask protects me.” As we have learned more about how COVID-19 is spread, we have found that the primary means of transmission is by droplets and aerosols that carry the virus from one person to another. Those droplets and aerosols are naturally created when we breathe, laugh, talk, sing, and when we cough and sneeze. Droplets can travel much farther than one might imagine (watch: bit.ly/SneezeVideo), which means we potentially can infect each other from as far as 25 feet away.

The best way to limit how far those droplets travel? You’ve guessed it — masks.

Masks create a barrier that keeps droplets from traveling so easily and so far. While masks do not completely eliminate the risk of spreading COVID-19 to others, they do reduce the chances significantly. The effect is even stronger — that is, there is an even smaller risk of spreading the disease — when both people in an encounter are wearing masks.

What kind of mask should you wear? For most of us, wearing something made of two to three layers of woven cotton is sufficient, as long as it covers the mouth and nose completely. It can fasten around the ears or tie behind the head with two fastening points. Disposable masks that meet these criteria are also sufficient, though a bit more costly to use.

When you are wearing a mask, leave it alone — do not keep touching the mask or your face. Leave it on while you are out in public and might encounter other people. When you are ready to remove the mask, pull it away from your face, discard it or prepare the mask for washing (if washable), and then wash your hands (for at least 20 seconds with soap and water) or use hand sanitizer. It really is as simple as that.

I have heard a wide range of reasons why people say they don’t want to wear a mask when they are out in public. Most of these reasons are not based in reality and do not stand up to any real scrutiny.

To respond to just a few, here are some well-supported facts:

— COVID-19 is absolutely real, and people of all ages are falling ill and dying from it in great numbers.

— You can spread COVID-19 even if you don’t have any symptoms (as is true for about a third of the people infected).

— And nearly everyone over the age of 2 can wear a mask without any problems or health effects.

Unless you’ve been instructed by your physician not to wear a mask, you should wear one — even when it’s hot outside and a mask is less comfortable.

One note of caution: While masks do substantially decrease the chances of spreading COVID-19, they are not 100% effective. That means we still need to be thoughtful and careful when we are out and about. We should still limit the time we are out near other people, and when we are out, we should continue to observe 6-feet physical distancing guidelines. We also should wash our hands properly and at reasonable intervals.

Also, do not go out if you are showing any signs of illness, unless you are seeking medical care.

In my very first column for LNP in late March, I implored Lancaster County residents to work together, as only by caring for our neighbors as for ourselves would we make it through the health threat of COVID-19.

Three months later, I stand by that statement. As businesses reopen and we have the opportunity to spend more time in public, I implore you — do what you can to keep yourself and others safe. Don’t overcrowd spaces, don’t go out if you are having any symptoms of illness, and please — please — wear a mask.

Janine Everett, Ph.D., RN, is director of the Public Health Program at Franklin & Marshall College.