Opinion: Let’s Not Let Fear Trump Facts During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic, real and dangerous as it is, seems to be having a big impact on some people’s minds as well as on some people’s bodies.

There’s that rush to hoard toilet paper and paper towels that has led to some pushing and shoving among customers in grocery stores. And there’s been the nasty exchange of comments on Facebook and Nextdoor Neighbor, where some residents have accused West Hollywood’s City Manager and City Council of putting residents’ lives in danger because the city didn’t hand out face masks at the beginning of the pandemic and hasn’t set up a local coronavirus testing site.

So maybe it’s time for all of us to take a deep breath. As a story published by Harvard Medical School explains “This skill is inborn but often lies dormant. Reawakening it allows you to tap one of your body’s strongest self-healing mechanisms.”

Once you’ve done that, let’s take a real look at what everyone is worried about.

Will a Medical Mask Protect You? If Not, Why Wear One?

The answer to that question is: Maybe. Or maybe not. If you’re not in regular and very close contact with someone who is seriously ill because of a COVID-19 infection (i.e. if you aren’t a healthcare worker), wearing a medical mask isn’t very likely to protect you from infection. The most important thing you can do is wash your hands time and again throughout the day and avoid touching your mouth, your nose and your eyes — places where the virus can creep inside of you.

However, if you are one of the large percentage of people who is infected and not yet aware of it, wearing a mask or other face covering reduces the risk that you will infect others. You don’t need to buy a medical mask. Health experts say a scarf that carefully covers your mouth and nose or a mask that you make at home is good enough. “A cloth face covering is a material that covers the nose and mouth,” the Los Angeles Department of Public Health says. “It can be secured to the head with ties or straps or simply wrapped around the lower face. It can be made of a variety of materials, such as cotton, silk, or linen. A cloth face covering may be factory-made or sewn by hand or can be improvised from household items such as scarfs, T-shirts, sweatshirts, or towels.”

Why would a mask or face covereing protect others more than it would protect you? Well, the COVID-19 virus is transmitted via droplets so small that you can’t see them, droplets that come from someone’s nose in a sneeze and someone’s mouth in a cough or even while talking, which is an act that involves pushing air from your lungs and out your mouth, even with a whisper. If you are infected but not yet aware of it (the chances of that are relatively high), and you’re talking to a friend on the sidewalk while waiting in line to get into the grocery store, or asking the checkout clerk a question, you should be wearing a mask. Despite how friendly your conversation might be, what’s really coming out of your mouth might be quite dangerous.

But what if you’re wearing a mask and the checkout clerk isn’t, and he coughs or speaks loudly in your direction? You’ll be safe, right? If the clerk is infected with COVID-19, those invisible droplets can float through the air and possibly land on your eyes, which is another way for the virus to enter your body. Or they can just land on your shirt or blouse, that shirt or blouse that you pull to straighten once you get in your car and remove the mask to drive home. And then, you touch your lip as you question whether you forgot something on your grocery list, or you scratch your itchy eye. Infected!

Why Hasn’t the City of West Hollywood Bought Masks for Its Residents?

Some residents are asking why the City of West Hollywood didn’t rush to hand out face masks, even if just to protect the uninfected from the virus spewed by the infected?

First, you should know that major health organizations such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, initially didn’t recommend wearing masks of any kind, unless you were working in a hospital or clinic with infected people. Over the weeks, those organizations shifted their opinion. They said that while face masks weren’t going to be much help in keeping the virus out of your body, they might help keep those who are infected from ejecting the virus onto others.

Those organizations have been attacked by some West Hollywood residents, who aren’t doctors or scientists, for not having figured that out earlier. But science tends to be more complex than faith or fantasy, so sometimes it takes a while to figure out what is real.

An N95 disposable respirator mask (3M, $21.94 / pkg. of 20). Currently out of stock.

It’s also important to note that even if City Hall didn’t buy what health experts were saying and instead bought into the notion that medical masks would protect the lives of those that wore them, West Hollywood doesn’t have its own health department. That’s the organization that is supposed to deal with public health issues.

West Hollywood is what is known as a general law city, a common form of government for smaller cities in which the City Manager is effectively the CEO and the City Council is the Board of Directors that hires him to run the show. General law cities typically contract with or rely on county agencies for certain services. For example, West Hollywood contracts with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department for public safety services. Also, WeHo and all other cities in L.A. County (except for Long Beach and Pasadena), rely on the L.A. County Department of Public Health for advice and assistance in dealing with a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. If major world and national health organizations weren’t believing that wearing a mask would keep you alive, it’s unlikely the L.A. County Health Department would have yielded to pressure from City Hall to approve mandatory distribution of such items.

The Shortage of Medical Masks

There’s also another issue that many in West Hollywood don’t seem to be aware of. There is a shortage of medical masks, both those called surgical masks and the N95 respirator masks (which have stronger filters) among healthcare workers who desperately need them.

USA Today reports that “hospital administrators around the country told a government watchdog they believe a shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment is putting patients and health care workers at risk of contracting coronavirus … The government survey found the most common equipment shortages were for N95 respirator masks, surgical masks, face shields, gowns and gloves. The shortages were so severe that some hospitals were experimenting with non-medical-grade gear such as construction respirators, cloth masks and handmade gowns, the report said.

“Hospitals struggled to purchase the equipment from their suppliers. One hospital supplier reported a delay of three to six months for N95 and surgical masks. Another said hospitals were competing with state and federal agencies to secure the equipment. “

So consider this when you grab up that medical mask or the N95 mask: Your decision to wear it not only isn’t doing more to protect your health than wearing a face scarf would, it may be putting in danger the health of medical professionals dealing with those who are seriously ill.

There apparently is a rush (even among West Hollywood merchants) to buy N95 and medical masks overseas. But hospitals face limits because they can only buy from a provider who can certify to federal regulators that the masks are safe. Merchants don’t face such rigorous limitations, but perhaps they should. Consider that right now, millions of surgical gowns made in China and imported by a reseller named Cardinal Health are being recalled because they may not be sterile. Surgeries are now being canceled in some hospitals.

As CBS News has reported “Cardinal Health admitted that a Chinese contractor supplying its gowns was using factories not registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.” As a result there were problems including “gowns exposed to contaminants through open windows, failure to provide hand sanitation, and operators eating in the production area.” And then there was the discovery of a cockroach in one of the gowns.

Why Aren’t Tests for the COVID-19 Virus Available to Everyone?

Suppliers are ramping up production of testing kits (and con artists are starting to sell their own online). Currently there are 11 drive-up testing sites in Los Angeles County, with another three scheduled to open this week. City Manager Paul Arevalo has said the city is working with the Los Angeles Department of Public Health to create a testing site in or near West Hollywood. People who want to get tested canapply for testing onlineand must have symptoms of the infection (a cough, fever, tiredness, and in severe cases difficulty breathing) to be accepted.

Why can’t everyone get a test, even those without symptoms? Well, why should everyone get a test? If you take a test and find out you aren’t infected, that’s good news. But that doesn’t mean you won’t become infected when you walk out of the clinic and find yourself in crowded elevator and someone near you coughs. You shouldn’t take advantage of the limited number of test kits and our overstretched healthcare system to get a test when you don’t have any symptoms. The tests should be reserved for those who have symptoms, with a priority for those with underlying conditions like heart disease that suggest a COVID-19 infection could mean death.

Why Are There So Many Infections in West Hollywood?

When I reported on March 16 that West Hollywood had the highest rate per capita of confirmed COVID-19 infections in all of Los Angeles County, some people weren’t happy about that, apparently feeling that that information would have a negative impact on the public’s perception of our city. At the time, that was one infection per 7,371 residents. As of yesterday, West Hollywood had one confirmed COVID-19 infection for every 429 residents. However, on a per capita basis there were more infections in the Crestview and Little Armenia neighborhoods of Los Angeles,

The truth is inconvenient, but it has inspired some of our civic leaders to ask why our infection rate is high and what, if anything, we can do about it. First, note that this data includes only “confirmed” infections — people who have been tested for the virus. Some argue that we may have more confirmed infections because we are a relatively affluent city whose residents can pay a doctor to do a test. There’s some logic to that, given the social media posts one sees from people with COVID-19 symptoms who say they can’t afford to see a doctor. But on the other hand, consider Beverly Hills, the more affluent city next door, which has the same population as WeHo but had only 65 confirmed infections as of yesterday.

That suggests that our population density may be one of the biggest factors. The 34,183 residents of Beverly Hills are spread across 5.7 square miles. West Hollywood’s 36,854 residents are crammed into 1.89 square miles, with 78% of us apartment dwellers. Living in the fourth most densely populated city in California, we are more likely to find ourselves up front and close with our neighbors on the sidewalks, in our building elevators, and even, until social distancing measures were put in place, at the grocery store checkout lines. Wearing face masks and washing your hands constantly is key to staying healthy and keeping others healthy in those situations

Another inconvenience that some city officials don’t want to consider is the possible impact of the fact that 33% of our population identifies as gay men. Until a week ago the gay hookup sites that attract hundreds of West Hollywood residents every day and night weren’t doing much to warn their users of the risk of intimate sexual contact with strangers. That changed last week, with Grindr recommending an intimate connection with a stranger through FaceTime or Skype rather than hooking up in person. BBRTS.com, the website gay men in West Hollywood and elsewhere use to find sexual partners who don’t use condoms, now has blocked the ability of its users to announce that they are hosting sex parties. And Oink Night, the nearby organizer of gay orgies, announced that it was closing its doors.

What’s Next?

That is a question that no one has a definitive answer to. What we do know is that the COVID-19 pandemic will be one of the worst things we have lived through. Many if not most of us will see someone we know die. Nearly all of us will feel a negative financial impact. And socially isolating, while essential to reducing the spread of infections, has a negative impact on our emotional wellbeing.

Given the weight of all of that, we don’t need to add to the COVID-019 pandemic another pandemic – an outbreak of hysteria.  So if you’ve read this far, take another deep breath and start reading a book, texting family and friends back in Ohio or Florida or Texas to say hello, or head to Netflix to entertain yourself by watching “Tiger King” or “The Invention of Lying.” There will be plenty to worry about when those shows are over, but let’s make sure our worries are based on fact.

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