If I told you we were close to finding a treatment that prevents 85% of coronavirus transmissions, would you try it?
The good news is we already have; it’s wearing a mask over your nose and mouth.
The bad news is that some leaders are pretending this pandemic is over and have made wearing masks a political issue, and too many people are joining them in their denial.
What’s happening is just the opposite. In the wake of so many people disregarding social distancing and mask-wearing, we are seeing surges in infection rates across the country—a 65% increase in the past two weeks, as of June 28. This is not due to an increase in testing—it represents an increase in positive cases. These facts should drive all of us back to the solutions that work.
I know it’s hard. We can’t see or touch COVID-19 and some of us don’t have a family member who has died. We want to “go back” to a time when we didn’t have to think about the pandemic. So, do some of our nation’s leaders. But do we trust them to give us health advice?
Here’s my point of view as a doctor dedicated to public health. COVID-19 is a very dangerous illness. The majority of people who’ve been hospitalized—both here at our hospital and nationally—are under 60. Even if you live, recovery is a painful, debilitating process. It can leave you with permanent disability—from stroke, kidney failure, heart disease, or vascular damage.
Fortunately, there are very simple things we can do short of shutting down our economy and communities that can prevent these terrible outcomes.
The World Health Organization has found that mask-wearing reduces the risk of transmission by up to 85%. COVID-19 is spread through airborne droplets in our breath; so, wearing masks that cover our nose and mouth prevent those droplets from entering the air other people are breathing. This is why you can’t wear your mask at half-mast—mouth only—and why we say that wearing a mask protects others. It’s a badge of caring.
The WHO also found that when we stay six feet away from others, the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission goes way down to below 2%–that’s an impressive result.
COVID-19 is invisible and silent. We can spread it unintentionally, when we don’t know we are contagious. So, wearing a mask over our nose and mouth and maintaining six feet of physical distance are the most effective things we can do to stop the spread to other people.
Some people are turning mask-wearing into a matter of individual rights and personal freedom. They taunt those brave enough to care about others, ridiculing the mask as a sign of weakness. This is tragic and dangerous. Our individual and collective acts of wearing masks and observing social distance are admirable and sensible. They show us the core of a democracy—protecting the rights of others and acknowledging how interconnected we all are. This disease touches all of us.
Here’s a hard truth: African Americans and Latinos are dying from COVID-19 at more than twice the rate of Whites. We are also suffering more economically. We are the essential workers in frontline jobs. We are the people on public transportation. The longer COVID-19 goes on, the more we will suffer in ways that have become too familiar, through inequities that keep us at the wrong end of health and economics. We have the most to lose with this disease.
At a time when our outrage against systemic racism in policing has never been more visible, we need to be just as outraged against the ways this pandemic affects us. If you see someone who is not wearing a mask, or distancing, speak up. And if you’re going into stores and you’re not wearing a mask, you’re part of the problem. You’re putting everyone else in danger.
We still have a lot of COVID-19 patients here at MLK Community Hospital, in the Intensive Care Unit and on ventilators. We learned from places like New York that a system strained to capacity is; one, in which, more people die. We have capacity right now, but this can change quickly as the number of people infected and hospitalized increases. I don’t want that for my community.
Other parts of the world have greatly reduced COVID-19 infections with masks and physical distancing. It doesn’t require complicated technology. It’s really a care campaign, coexisting in ways that dramatically reduce transmission—and come with the added benefit of preventing another lockdown.
I appreciate all the ways our communities have honored the nurses and doctors who risk their lives caring for sick patients in the past few months. More than anyone else, they are on the front lines. My heart aches to think of them facing a potential new surge of patients who believed they had a personal right to put the rest of us in danger.
On behalf of my team, here’s what we need most from you right now: Do your part as a responsible community member to slow the spread of this disease. Do it because you care about the people around you. Do it to show appreciation for the essential workers putting themselves at risk for their fellow Americans. Do it because it’s the best way to bring our economy back.
Do it so our health care workers have a fighting chance.
Dr. Elaine Batchlor is the chief executive officer of Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital in Watts.
Share your feedback, questions, comments and stories with Dr. Batchlor at DrB@mlkch.org.