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Uncovering the Facts About Wearing Masks

By David Simpson

When Old Dominion University opens for in-person classes in August, you might consider stressing something to your students that you haven't had to mention before:

Face masks. And why they are important.

Combined with social distancing and frequent handwashing, masks can slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, as health authorities have made clear.

Yet some young people - like some adults - dismiss the importance of face coverings or refuse to look uncool, even during a pandemic. Many feel that by not wearing masks, they're asserting their First Amendment rights. Even so, confusion reigns.

In an ODU history class last month, Professor Annette Finley-Croswhite found it necessary to discuss the issue after a student informed her: "I don't wear a mask in public because I'm not sick. I'm healthy, and I'm not going to get anyone sick."

She heard a variety of responses to the face mask issue in her history of medicine class. Some of her students are nurses and health care workers who work with COVID-19 patients and must wear full Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) in their workplaces.

In-class conversations are an opportunity for you to emphasize that the virus can be spread by people who don't have symptoms and don't know that they are infected. That's why masks are essential. They also show that you are looking out for others.

By the fall semester, the University will provide guidance on social distancing and the use of masks. In the meantime Gov. Ralph Northam has mandated that Virginians age 10 or older wear masks or other face coverings in public indoor settings. His order dovetails with a U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendation that cloth face coverings be worn in public places "where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain."

What wearing a mask does is protect other people from your own respiratory droplets, says an April article in The Lancet, the British medical journal. "This approach is important," the authors write, "because of possible asymptomatic transmissions" of the virus.

But what if a student doesn't own a mask? The CDC website has instructions for making a sewn cloth version, as well as designs crafted from a T-shirt or a bandana that require no sewing.

Surgical masks and N95 respirators, however, should be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders, the CDC says.

Public responses to the global crisis have varied widely from nation to nation, culture to culture. Poland has created Mask-o-Matic dispensing machines. In East Asia, mask-wearing has become a sign of solidarity amid the crisis. Not so much here in the United States, where the spirit of independence is often manifest.

But with a focused effort to monitor safety in the classroom, we can slow the spread of the disease, both at ODU and beyond.

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