I usually try to walk at least 5 miles a day as my form of daily exercise. My usual path takes me through a winding trail of paseos, allowing me to enjoy the wonderful community in which we live.
All of that changed last Saturday morning. At about 7:30 a.m. I embarked upon my usual journey and I soon noticed that I was the only walker wearing a mask. I must have encountered at least 30 other people, many walking their dogs, without masks. Several obstructed the paseo, preventing social distancing. Previously, the overwhelming majority of fellow walkers I encountered wore masks and carefully observed social distancing.
I am a 67-year-old man with ostensibly elevated risks if infected by the COVID-19 virus. Furthermore, my wife takes arthritis medications, which compromise her immune system, and my daughter has cystic fibrosis. So, if I become infected, I pose a huge risk to my immediate family — even if I am asymptomatic or have an otherwise mild case.
Recent evidence suggests that the disease is more widespread than previously believed. If so, that means there is a potentially large population of asymptomatic carriers who can pass the disease to others without knowing they are infected. Furthermore, people are contagious before they show symptoms.
That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone wear a mask whenever they leave home. Deciding to wear a mask is not about convenience, it’s about preventing the spread of disease. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo understood this when he stated that not wearing a mask in public is disrespectful.
I am reminded of the Finnish three-dimensional animated model that was shown on television a few weeks ago illustrating that joggers and walkers leave a wake of airflow behind and around them that can contain the virus.
The New York Times reported that a follow-up study from the Eindhoven Institute of Technology in the Netherlands was conducted using models from previous projects that studied the flow of droplets containing the SARS virus. The Dutch study showed that droplets exhaled by a runner or walker can remain airborne at infectious levels in the runner’s wake for a distance of up to 10 meters (30 feet). The distance can be shortened if the runner/walker wears a mask.
Conversely, the Wall Street Journal reported an analysis by a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at UC San Francisco, which concluded that there is no compelling reason to wear a mask while exercising outdoors as long as you maintain social distancing. The article failed to establish what distance constituted appropriate social distancing, but left the reader with the impression that a mere 6 feet is adequate.
My takeaway is that we currently lack an adequate understanding of the mechanics of how the COVID-19 virus spreads, so we should be cautious. Viruses are like a predator who lulls its prey into a false sense of serenity, thereby enhancing the chances of a successful hunt by striking when the quarry’s defenses are down.
They say that those who don’t learn from history are bound to repeat its mistakes. All we need do is look back to San Francisco 101 years ago.
The first case of influenza in San Francisco was diagnosed in September 1918. By mid-October, it was clear that San Francisco was suffering from the Spanish flu pandemic as 20,000 became infected and more than 1,000 died. In response, the city imposed a number of measures including social distancing and the requirement to wear a mask in public. The pandemic improved, so in November, the city lifted its restrictions — except for the requirement to wear a mask.
Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, the mayor and a public health leader did not wear masks at a prominent public event, conveying the message that masks were not needed. Subsequently, 90% of San Franciscans followed their example and refused to wear masks. In December, the pandemic returned. By January 1919, the number of cases increased rapidly, but due to citizen opposition, San Francisco delayed re-establishing the procedures that had reduced the spread of the disease in the previous October.
As a desperate measure, on Jan. 17, county supervisors mandated the use of masks. In response, there was a huge protest by the so-called “Anti-Mask League,” which was similar to last month’s “Freedom Rally” in Wisconsin. Consequently, few people in San Francisco wore masks and the disease became more widespread. An additional 25,000 people were infected, resulting in 2,000 deaths. The second wave was considerably worse than the first.
Until we learn more about the COVID-19 virus, we best serve ourselves and those around us by wearing a mask when in public. I realize that doing so is uncomfortable and inconvenient for many, but we cannot be seduced into a false sense of tranquility like the San Franciscans were in 1919.
Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident.