The more we learn about the coronavirus, it seems the less we really know. Case in point: the shifting guidance from public health authorities on whether we should all be covering our faces with a homemade mask to slow the spread of the virus. In the early days of the pandemic, we were assured that the coronavirus is not airborne. We couldn’t get infected just from being in close proximity to another person, unless they coughed or sneezed and we inhaled contaminated droplets, or if we touched a surface where the droplets landed then touched our face. Personal protection equipment (PPE), including N95 masks and face shields, was only deemed necessary for medical personnel on the front lines of patient care.
Recent research, however, suggests that the coronavirus has at least some capacity to float in the air by hitching a ride on the invisible moisture expelled from our lungs every time we exhale. After a month of being assured that we need only avoid sick people and wash our hands to stay safe, this startling revelation has changed everything. The Centers for Disease Control and Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s most trusted source for pandemic information, quickly recognized the implications of these findings. Both now recommend that we all cover our face to reduce the chances of coming into contact with the virus simply by breathing. Governor Gretchen Whitmer weighed in on Monday, encouraging citizens to wear a mask whenever they go out in public. Ingham County Health Office Linda Vail made a similar recommendation at a news conference yesterday.
We believe the governor and local health authorities should go a step further. Greater protections should be enacted for the thousands of essential employees who still must report to work every day and who, by virtue of interacting with co-workers and the public on a sustained basis, are at far greater risk than those of us who have the luxury of staying home. On our occasional ventures out to buy groceries, pick up carryout food, or fill up the gas tank, we rarely see workers in the retail sector wearing any sort of face covering. Inattention to social distancing requirements among essential workers also is disturbingly commonplace.
Governor Whitmer’s original “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order required all employers to adopt social distancing practices and other measures to protect their workers and patrons. It did not, however, explicitly require essential workers to cover their face. Nor did it direct employers to provide PPE to their workers. Similarly, Ingham County’s emergency public health order, issued more than a week ago, requires all employers to implement social distancing procedures that ensure workers are at least six feet away from one another. But there is no explicit requirement that workers cover their face.
We understand the concern that mandating employers to provide PPE to their essential employees may complicate efforts to ensure that frontline medical workers and first responders have the gear they need to stay safe. In a perfect world, we would have enough surgical masks for every citizen who wants one, and ready supplies for employers who wish to provide them to their workers. Given the frightening and inexcusable shortage of basic PPE for medical workers, that’s not likely to happen any time soon. But there is also no reason to shy away from requiring — not just recommending — that essential workers cover their face.
Given mixed messages from Washington and the lack of a clear mandate in current emergency orders, we urge the governor or county health officer to require that all essential workers cover their faces with some type of mask, both for their own protection and to reduce risks to the public. To emphasize the urgency of the matter and induce widespread compliance, this should be accomplished through an executive order by Governor Whitmer or an expanded emergency public health order by ICHD Health Officer Vail (with neighboring county health officials following suit). Such orders should also include penalties for employers who fail to enforce it.
Let’s be clear: what we don’t know about this virus really can kill us. We believe it is far better to take extraordinary steps to protect essential workers and the public — right now — than it is to be overly cautious or wait for additional evidence that the coronavirus is more easily spread than we realize. Dr. Fauci recently pointed out that he believes 25-50% of all Americans have already been exposed to the coronavirus, which means there are likely far more asymptomatic carriers than we realize. This is all the more reason to require essential employees who interact frequently with the public to wear a mask.
When the COVID-19 pandemic is over and the horrific death toll is tallied, public officials who were reticent to order more drastic steps may regret that they didn’t go the extra mile. Now is the time for courageous leaders to step forward and leave no stone unturned in their efforts to protect the public and save lives.