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Op-Ed: Masks, like vaccines, are liberating

by PAUL WHITE, MD
| October 30, 2020 1:00 AM

I went to Jonas E. Salk Middle School in Spokane, named after the inventor of the polio vaccine. Since its discovery, we no longer live in fear of this deadly and debilitating virus. However, I still see its effects.

I have patients and neighbors who live with the daily pain of post-polio syndrome. I have colleagues who walk with the telltale limp and muscle deformity of a past infection. To have survived it is a blessing though. Many children were lost to respiratory failure, their last moments spent in an iron lung to help them breathe.

Salk discovered the vaccine so long ago now that young people have no idea what horrors they are protected from. I can only imagine the relief of those parents, when they no longer needed to worry about their children swimming in the local pond, or going to a summer birthday party only to catch the virus.

I am relieved that vaccines have eradicated smallpox. I am relieved that my kids will never have shingles. I am relieved that my patients are protected from meningitis, diphtheria, pneumococcal pneumonia. I am relieved that I can go to a restaurant knowing the workers there will not pass on viral hepatitis. I can live my life more fully, and with less worry, knowing that I am protected by these safe, simple measures.

We do not yet have an FDA approved COVID-19 vaccine, but in the meantime we have masks. I still cannot understand the resistance to wearing masks that I encounter in North Idaho. Perhaps they see the Panhandle’s COVID death count of 74 as a small number. We have been lucky so far in North Idaho. But even in July, when the death count was one, I knew our luck would run out.

The number of infections and deaths rise daily. Kootenai Health is nearly full, and has been for weeks. The curve is skyrocketing instead of flattening, and things will get worse before they get better.

I feel blessed, as an oncologist, that none of my patients have yet died from COVID-19. Certainly, my patients are some of the most vulnerable in Idaho. Many cancer patients are elderly and frail, are undergoing chemotherapy treatments, or have compromised immune systems. Cancer patients are much more likely to have complications from any infection, COVID-19 or otherwise.

We know that masks work. They have been instrumental in keeping COVID-19 out of the Kootenai Clinic Cancer Center. Almost every single patient happily wears a mask as they come and go from clinic visits, infusions, and scans with less fear from COVID-19. They understand their risk, and take reasonable precautions.

Coupled with good hand hygiene and social distancing, wearing masks has allowed them to do their shopping, visit with relatives, and live their lives more freely. If the alternatives are illness and death by coronavirus or another lockdown, then masks are a liberation!

In this context, masks restore liberty in the midst of the pandemic, allowing us to keep commerce open and vulnerable people safe. They allow businesses to operate and keep employees healthy. Masks are not perfect, but they are the best we've got.

If you oppose masks but know a cancer patient, please consider their vulnerability. Consider the hospital and staff who are tirelessly treating a flood of patients never before seen at Kootenai Health. Consider your neighbor, and love your neighbor.

Ultimately, the pandemic will end when we have an effective vaccine. Then we will be free to get back to “normal life,” whatever that is. Until then, I urge everyone to faithfully wear masks in public spaces, if for no other reason than you’re helping protect Idaho’s most vulnerable. Thank you in advance.

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Paul White, MD, Kootenai Cancer Center.

The views and opinions expressed in this letter are my own and are not written as a representative of Kootenai Health.