I’d like to credit Mr. Jonathan Riddle, our city’s Republican candidate for Mayor, for his op-ed the other day. It takes a level of guts to take a public stand on the issue of masking; one that has for any number of unfortunate reasons, become a political football. A football that is also a bumper sticker for how someone stands on a warehouse of other, entirely unrelated issues. I think I can speak for many that this is no way to exist in a society, particularly regarding such a monumental issue so dependent on the unified participation of its citizens.
I’ll start by saying that, while I don’t know Mr. Riddle, I’ll presume he doesn’t like that notion either, and he offers some valid points I’d like to reflect on below. But, like much of our information dissemination these days, his assessment features some incomplete truths that run awry, and sometimes directly counter to, his conclusions. In reflecting on these, I’d like to also do my best in citing responsible sources that are in addition to my own circle of friends that include nurses, doctors, and experts in epidemiology.
Liberties and Lockdowns
Mr. Riddle references “lockdowns” quite a bit in his piece, and frankly, that’s just low-hanging bulletin board material for a particular minority of our community. It borders on a cheap vocabulary dessert for the misinformed.
Point blank: nothing that the United States has instituted in the last 17 months, at either a state or national level, qualifies as a “lockdown.” By any definition, nothing like the well-publicized events in China, Germany, or in some parts of Australia currently, where people are asked to not leave their homes for extended periods of time, enter stores, or traverse into another town, occurred (or will occur) here.
If Mr. Riddle is equating a “lockdown” with “staying home for 14 days,” as he writes, after testing positive for COVID, then he is catering directly to a purely science-denying crowd, and I won’t respond to that. I expect most people here believe the basic science of staying away from other people when sick, at least until they are reliably non-contagious. That, to me, is hardly counter to our nation’s ideals of liberty.
The Science of Masks
Mr. Riddle is correct on this point: there is no better mask than N95 (and above) for both preventing the spread and inhalation of viral particles. This is because N95s are a type of respirator (Mayo Clinic 8/4/21). Mr. Riddle oversimplifies their operation, but right in their value. That said, he is wrong in his assessment that “anything less than a one-time use properly fitted N95 mask provides little to no protection.” There are a number of reasons why.
Surgical masks (like those used in sterile medical environments) and cloth masks are not all created equal. Cloth ones in particular. Poorly fitting, single layered, or improper material can all lead to lapses in effectiveness. Generally speaking, the most effective cloth ones are those that are “multi-layered and made of tightly woven fabric like cotton” (Mayo Clinic 8/4/21). Surgical masks are made to a more exacting standard, and thus more reliable in their use. Mr. Riddle’s argument is that viral particles can easily pass through anything other than N95s, and this is largely true, but, he misses a critical point:
Cloth masks do an excellent job at blocking respiratory droplets, which CARRY viral particles. Multiple, cross-woven layers block more and more droplets, which thus transmits less and less viral particles.
“One recent laboratory experiment used a laser-light-scattering methodology to visualize respiratory droplets generated while subjects repeated the phrase ‘stay healthy.’ While each utterance generated hundreds of droplets ranging in size from 20 to 500 micrometers, the researchers showed that covering the speaker’s mouth with a damp washcloth blocked nearly all of them.” (M.I.T. 7/7/20)
Further evidence is easy to find, including a Mayo Clinic study released July 2021:
Again, the key is proper use. But, even less proper use can help.
Excuse me while I digress, but I sort of liken it to responsible gun control arguments. Sure, taking high-capacity magazines and semi-automatic guns that fire rounds at incredibly high rates away from average citizens won’t end murder. But it can absolutely reduce the number of people killed in mass incidents, and give more time and opportunities for those on site or law enforcement to respond, fight back, or enact other countermeasures.
When it comes to surgical or cloth masks, we are not preventing viral particles from being released entirely, but limiting the amount and rate: particularly in cases of sneezing and loud talking, thus influencing spread. That spread, limited in distance and width now, will affect less people. It’s not that hard.
Consider this nugget regarding flu’s dropoff this past year:
“Since the novel coronavirus began its global spread, influenza cases reported to the World Health Organization from the Northern and Southern Hemispheres have dropped to minute levels. The reason, epidemiologists think, is that the public health measures taken to keep the coronavirus from spreading — notably mask wearing and social distancing — also stop the flu. Influenza viruses are transmitted in much the same way as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and they are less effective at jumping from person to person.
As Scientific American reported in November 2020, the drop-off in flu numbers following COVID’s arrival was swift and global. Since then, cases have stayed remarkably low. “There’s just no flu circulating,” says Greg Poland, who has studied the disease at the Mayo Clinic for decades. The U.S. saw about 700 deaths from influenza during the 2020–2021 season. In comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there were approximately 22,000 U.S. deaths in the prior season and 34,000 deaths two seasons ago.” (Scientific American, 4/29/21)
In the end, the flu is not exactly the same as this or any other coronavirus, but the point remains. Also, masks do a much better job at protecting the wearer from infecting others, than they do protecting oneself. Mr. Riddle misses that point, too, while he cites language on a box of undetermined masks, writing, “This product… will not provide protection against COVID-19 or any other viruses.” That’s precisely the point. Regular mask use is almost entirely about those around us. That’s how they work, and it’s why community use is so important.
Science aside, is it really that hard to wear a mask? Particularly while our children remain unvaccinated? We can nitpick the mask effectiveness argument until we’re blue in the face, and while there is some mixed (and limited) data on their effectiveness in schools among younger kids (most likely due to potential improper use of our youngest students), there is absolutely no reason we shouldn’t give them a shot due to the above information. Mr. Riddle’s intent or not, if a candidate caters to a crowd that doesn’t recognize doing all that it can to protect our most vulnerable, their lower risk aside, then they’ve already lost me.
The most important area that Mr. Riddle and I very much agree on is that this virus is here to stay in some form, and the medical response will be, just as it is now: vaccinations. There is no doubt that the medical community will continue to study and adapt its prevention and treatments of this virus and its many forms for years, perhaps a generation, to come. The over 200-year history of vaccination will continue, and be the universal solution to diverting an out-of-control pandemic into a manageable, mundane coronavirus.
While Mr. Riddle seems to support vaccination, he cherry picks very limited data, from a yet to be peer reviewed (incredibly surprising considering the date of submission) Cleveland Clinic study to equate vaccination with prior infection. Mr. Riddle equating prior infection to vaccination is either misinformed, vaguely premature, or most likely, wrong according to the very study he miscites through its own reference point:
“… the vaccine may still provide some benefit in previously infected persons. A prior large observational study concluded that immunity from natural infection cannot be relied on to provide adequate protection” (Cleveland Clinic 6/2021)
Mr. Riddle’s piece asked a series of loaded questions, quoted below, with some quick hottakes:
“What’s next? More…
- “Mandates and lockdowns?”
As noted above, lockdowns, by definition, didn’t occur here or anywhere in the U.S.
- “Vaccine Passports?”
As defined recently, these have nothing to do with the Mayor or city offices.
- “Shutting down Norwalk City Hall for another year?”
The business of City Hall, while limited in-person, never shut down.
- “Shutting down schools again?”
Schools were never shut down: in fact, while the process was clearly imperfect and at times haphazard, Connecticut received far more days in school than its neighbors, and Norwalk provided more learning opportunities than its richer surrounding towns. I’d venture the focus is and will remain in-person learning here on out, as it should.
In the end, I think our Republican candidate gave it an effort, but one that felt incredibly incomplete. Generally speaking, it was a letdown. I am someone open-minded politically, and as I’ve noted before, while I’m, in most respects, a Democrat, I am most moved by good ideas. And I’m very open to receiving those from any party. That said, the ideas Mr. Riddle presented, frankly, are just not all that good. Worst yet, he framed them in some of the same Diet-MAGA terms that will continue to doom the local Republican party in this city.
I’d like to see a robust back and forth between parties and ideas. I’d like to see candidates aim to capture the heart of its potential constituents, all the while framing their opinions with empathy and data. But, if it’s more of the same old dog-whistle lingo interspersed with misinterpreted information and haphazardly communicated talking points, you can count me out.