LIMA — Allen County’s COVID-19 situation is quickly deteriorating, with more new cases reported here in the last few weeks than at any other time.
The bad news comes as schools are preparing to resume in-person instruction. It has school superintendents, teachers, parents, cafeteria workers and bus drivers all asking the same question: Can the widespread use of face masks bring transmission under control in time for schools to start?
The timing of Allen County’s mandatory mask order, which took effect July 17, and the willingness of the public to comply with the order and avoid mass gatherings will determine whether the order was given just in time, or was too little, too late.
“It seems like we’re back to that square-one point again,” said Dr. Brian Fink, an epidemiologist and professor for the University of Toledo.
Fink said new modeling suggests universal mask-wearing could have a similar effect as shelter-in-place orders in slowing transmission of the coronavirus. But he worries people will become complacent at a time when social distancing is still essential.
And even if everyone started using masks today, it could take three to four weeks to see any significant change in the rate of new infections, according to Dr. Tara Smith, an epidemiologist and professor at Kent State University.
“We still have people out there who were infected and who will start showing symptoms over the next 14 days,” Smith said. “So even if there is a major change, we still have at least one incubation period of infections that are not going to change because they’ve already been exposed.”
Allen County is now the sole community in Ohio approaching a Level 4 Emergency, the highest rating in Ohio’s new public health alert system. During this time, travel outside the home is discouraged in all but essential case. But it is unclear what this would mean in practice.
Tami Gough, director of prevention and health promotion services for Allen County Public Health, said the warning system allows local leaders—including mayors, commissioners, school officials and business leaders—to make decisions based on the severity of COVID-19 in their community.
But as of Friday, Gough said no definite decisions have been made.
If masks are effective, why weren’t they mandated earlier?
Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer for The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said there wasn’t much data to support the use of homemade masks at the beginning of the pandemic. And there was a shortage of personal protective equipment at the time, prompting many in public health officials to discourage the public from wearing masks, particularly the N95s worn by healthcare workers.
But now that more research has been done, Gonsenhauser said homemade masks can be effective.
Viruses are spread by respiratory droplets—or fluid that is exhaled when a person talks, breathes, laughs, sneezes or coughs—that can linger in the air and infect another person through the eyes, nose or mouth.
“They generally fall to the ground fairly quickly,” Gonsenhauser said, “but if you’re within six feet of somebody, there’s a period of time that they will linger in the air in that space, during which you can breathe them in or potentially get them on your face or hands and then introduce them to your respiratory tract or your eyes or nose. And that can be the way that the virus is introduced to your body.”
The mask decreases the likelihood that those droplets make it into the air by trapping them in the fabric when a person talks or breathes, Gonsenhauser said, which is why masks are more effective when everyone wears one rather than just those who are higher risk for sever complications from COVID-19.
Smith said Ohio’s mandatory mask order would have been more effective had it been issued when businesses started reopening. She worries it may be too late now for schools to resume safely, and more control measures may be needed to slow transmission.
“People aren’t going to like it, but if you really wanted to get schools to be in-person and full-time, I think we should be considering additional shutdowns at this point,” she said.
Bars, dine-in restaurants and other crowded indoor venues are among the establishments where the virus has been spreading most efficiently.
“Those are places where people are unmasked, they’re in close proximity, they’re interacting with each other and they’re places where you tend to let your guard down,” Smith said.