Guest Column: The 1918 pandemic eerily repeated

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By Wally Pearce, Winters Elder Day Council
Special to the Express

Masks are a key measure to suppress COVID-19 transmission. Masks reduce potential exposure risk from an infected person whether they have symptoms or not. Wearing a face covering prevents people from infecting others by stopping the spread of respiratory droplets that carry the virus when someone coughs or sneezes, because, it’s clear, COVID-19 spread is transmitted by tiny virus particles that come from the mouth or nose when people hack or wheeze. 

In the 1918 United States, nearly 675,000 American died from that pandemic. Many of the prevention methods Americans used in the 1918 flu pandemic are like what communities are doing today during the COVID-19 pandemic: Wear a mask, close schools, social distance, don’t cough or sneeze in someone’s face, avoid large events and hold them outside.

In 1918, local health officials offered these guidelines, and more, in all kinds of ways. In cities with streetcars, signs were posted warning: “Spit Spreads Death.” In New York City, officials enforced no-spitting ordinances and encouraged residents to cough or sneeze into handkerchiefs. The city’s health department even advised people not to kiss except through a handkerchief. 

In October 1918, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a public service announcement stating that: “The man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker”—a reference to the type of World War I “slacker” who didn’t help the war effort. One sign threatened, “Wear a Mask or Go to Jail.” Still, some people who went without a mask reported their issue was not with science; it was a personal preference.

Today, COVID-19 infection is transmitted by respiratory droplets generated when people cough, sneeze, sing, talk or breathe. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC-P) recommends the use of masks to prevent transmission, and that masks are designed to reduce the emission of deadly virus-laden droplets, and help lessen inhalation of these droplets by the wearer and; local communities benefit. 

Make sure that the mask selected: fits snugly but comfortably against the side of the face, completely covers the nose and mouth, is secured with ties or ear loops, includes multiple layers of fabric, allows for breathing without restriction, and can be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape. Cloth masks should NOT be worn by anyone who has medically been determined that they have trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

In the absence of highly effective vaccines, and abundant medical resources, many measures are necessary to manage the infection rate and avoid exhausted and precious hospital resources. Wearing masks is among the best non-pharmaceutical intervention measures that work to stop transmission without dramatically disrupting social practices. There are at least three key factors to consider: 1) mask aerosol reduction rate; 2) mask coverage; and 3) mask availability. 

Scientific and medical related studies continually determine that wearing a proper face mask is effective to flatten the epidemic curve, and presents a rational way to combat COVID-19 and its spread. 

Masks also offer protection meant to defend those in proximity, and for someone who might mistakenly be infected with the virus. However, a mask is not a substitute for social distancing; should still be worn, in addition to staying at least 6-feet apart.

Health officials continue to assert that qualifying evidence is clear that masks prevent the spread of COVID-19 and that the more people wearing masks, the safer everyone will be.

With already more than 257,000 people dead, and a growing number of cases now at over 12-million — while hospitals around the county struggle every day to provide the demand for services by people in serious need of medical attention — the basic task of mask-wearing is a natural benefit to everyone in the control of spread of this deadly virus. 

Again, if you are not sure what mask to wear, please consider masks: 1) that have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric; completely cover the nose and mouth; 2) that fits snugly against the sides of the face and don’t have gaps; and, 3) should not be worn by children less than two years old or anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, and allows for breathing without restriction, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

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