This editorial was published in the Idaho Falls Post Register.
Gov. Brad Little’s greatest policy achievement, tamping down the first wave of COVID-19, is currently at serious risk of being lost.
Idaho’s initial success in battling the coronavirus appears to have been a mixture of good luck and good policy.
Idaho was lucky in that it was one of the last states in the nation to get hit with COVID-19. By the time it hit the Gem State, the terrible toll the pandemic could take was clear from the experience of other nations and other parts of the country.
Little used that knowledge, a perspective that was not available to the governors of New York and California when their outbreaks began, to move quickly with a stay-home order. It proved incredibly effective, if painful, and just as quickly as our period of exponential increase had begun, the curve fell and flattened, so that new infections remained at a relatively low and steady state for many weeks.
But new cases are no longer at a low, steady state.
Things may feel much better than they were in April because life seems to be back to something like normal.
They are not.
They are worse.
Idaho hit its peak number of new daily cases late last week.
And this is occurring within warm summer conditions that most scientists believe tend to slow transmission of the virus. If a second wave materializes in fall, it could make both the April and June waves in Idaho look trivial by comparison, unless strategies to tamp down the spread of the coronavirus can be effectively implemented.
Idaho’s spreading events so far have continued to vary greatly from region to region — driven by mass spreading events, including at Boise bars, an Idaho Falls church and Magic Valley food processing plants — so Little’s decision to turn over pandemic mitigation to regional health authorities makes some sense. But if he is going to turn over responsibility for managing the pandemic to the regional level, he needs to give regional authorities confidence that he will back measures that will be necessary to fight it.
One of the most important ways he can do this is by following Arizona Gov. Doug Doucey in allowing municipal, county and regional health officials to implement public mask-wearing mandates. He shouldn’t just allow it. It should be encouraged.
There isn’t much actual data on the prevalence of mask-wearing in Idaho, but anyone who goes to a grocery store knows the rate is abysmal and getting worse by the day. While Little has advocated wearing masks, he’s expressed reluctance to allow it to be mandated.
As the rate of mask-wearing seems to be declining, the evidence that masks are an effective means of slowing coronavirus spread is mounting. Anecdotally, there’s the case of two Missouri hairstylists who saw 140 clients while they were unknowingly infected. Not a single client became infected. Larger studies and metanalyses — reviews of multiple studies — also provide support for the effectiveness of masks.
It appears that a major means by which COVID-19 spreads is through tiny aerosol droplets expelled when coughing, sneezing or even talking. When you are in an enclosed space, you should imagine these tiny droplets as akin to cigarette smoke. They can float around, some studies suggest, 30 feet or more from the infected person. They can linger in the air for hours. If you were smoking a cigarette, who could smell it? If so, and if you are infected, you could be exposing those same people to infection.
If you’re wearing a mask, studies suggest you emit many fewer of these tiny infectious droplets, and if someone else is infected, you breathe fewer in. The evidence suggests, in short, that you gain some protection from others by wearing a mask, but more importantly, you offer a lot of protection to those around you. Some studies suggest a second coronavirus wave in the fall could be avoided or greatly reduced if all of us would just wear masks whenever we’re in enclosed public spaces or large outdoor gatherings.
Little should pay attention to this growing body of evidence, and the obviously low rate of mask-wearing, and allow local and regional mask mandates.