The virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) is an “enveloped” virus, and such viruses are fragile in the environment. Furthermore, SARS-CoV-2 has an unusually high electrical charge, which means that under normal circumstances it will “adsorb” to other surfaces that are abundant in the environment (e.g., clay in soil). Consequently, we don’t have to worry about environmental reservoirs and the battle can be focused on one key idea — we must deny the virus new hosts. Without hosts, it will die out.

With this basic understanding, it is particularly laudable that Moscow’s mayor has bucked the tide in Idaho and issued a mask mandate to counter the growing risk that the virus causing COVID-19 is or could soon be spreading in the community. He has every reason to be concerned. At the time of this writing, the U.S. has approximately 3.3 million documented cases and the rate of daily increase has more than doubled from just a month ago. Deaths, at greater than 135,000 so far, will lag behind the infection increase, but we can already see that the daily rate nationally is increasing and will likely be more than 1,000 deaths per day by the end of the week.

It is true that our rural communities have been largely spared so far … but it only takes one super spreader event in an unprepared community to cause a dramatic shift in fate. This is why Mayor Bill Lambert’s decision is so important (not to mention the statewide decree in Washington). To the credit of our community, letters to the editor have been dominated by strong support for the mayor’s stance. This is one community that won’t be caught off guard as easily as some, although one local church is doing its best to favor the virus (but this is for a later column).

Objections to the mask requirement were raised at a recent Moscow City Council meeting (reported July 7). Among other things, requiring masks was described as “dehumanizing.” I’m not sure what that means, but the alternative of having a tube inserted down your trachea during intubation with a ventilator seems about as “dehumanizing” as things can get.

One person claimed that the immune system is “like a muscle” and requiring a face mask deprives the immune system of much needed stimulation and thus it will atrophy and be more vulnerable to the virus. This is patently false, and I challenge anyone adhering to such ideas to talk to an actual immunologist (we have a number of such specialists between the two universities).

Requiring masks does two things. First, as Mayor Lambert pointed out, it boosts consumer confidence so people will actually shop at local businesses. Secondly, it reduces the risk of transmission. One of the objectors at the council meeting claimed that this latter idea was “unscientific.” Let’s take a moment to examine this claim.

On June 1, a paper appeared in the prestigious journal Lancet (2020; 395: 1973–87; freely available) that analyzed the collective findings from 172 observational studies from 16 countries and 25,697 patients.

The results included three key findings. The odds of SARS-CoV-2 transmission is reduced by 5.6 times when distancing is at least one meter compared to less than one meter, and the benefits increase with greater distance. Wearing a disposable surgical mask (not unlike a cloth mask) reduces the odds of transmission by 6.7 times relative to not wearing a face mask, and the odds improve further with N95 masks. Finally, wearing eye protection reduces odds of transmission by 4.5 times relative to not wearing protection.

Two weeks ago, I launched on an exciting and someone risky raft trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. We hopscotched down the river with other groups during the trip and we knew, just as they did, that if anyone was in crisis, everyone would jump to aid their fellow river runners without reference to politics or ideology. This is exactly what we need now. Let’s ditch the ridiculous politicization of this crisis and join forces to do the one thing that we can easily do and that has the best chance of bringing normalcy to our lives again — wear the mask and deny this virus anymore hosts.

Doug Call is a microbiologist. He first discovered the Palouse 37 years ago.

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