To mask or not to mask?

Health Director Dr. David Damsker weighs in on latest COVID-19 order from Wolf and Levine

Slowing the spread: During a recent virtual news conference, Health Director Dr. David Damsker (bottom right) weighed in on the latest mask-wearing mandate from Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine. Source: Zoom Screenshot

The citizens of Pennsylvania seem to be split down the middle when it comes to Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine’s latest COVID-19 order, which mandates that masks be worn outside in public spaces. While some are willing to follow the governor’s direction, believing this will prevent a spike in case numbers, others are refusing.

During a recent virtual news conference, Bucks County Health Director Dr. David Damsker weighed in on the issue.

“If you really look at what it says, I don’t believe it’s going to have a huge impact on a lot of what we’re doing here in Bucks County already. Most of the businesses are already requiring masks. Most of the people that I see in general are wearing masks out in public. This is just making it more important by making the entire thing an order,” he said. “It’s not just the businesses now. Everybody needs to wear a mask, and I think the overall idea behind it is a good one.”

Damsker expressed his wish for more guidance concerning face requirements for children, especially at camps and during sports games.

“We need to separate some of the real questions that are coming from places like camps that are trying to run and make a kid in 110 degrees play Duck Duck Goose with a mask on,” he said. “It’s not realistic. And I unequivocally say that they should not be wearing masks while they’re participating in sports.”

Some people, Damsker acknowledged, are physically unable to wear a mask.

“It doesn’t just have to be things like asthma or COPD, other lung diseases. There’s people with claustrophobia,” he said, adding that face shields and bandanas are good alternatives. “This order is being put out in general. Even if most people wear masks, it’s sort of the whole idea that we’re still making a big difference. Even if 10 percent of people aren’t able to wear masks, whatever the reason or medical situation, or at a basketball game if the kids can’t wear masks while they’re playing, the idea is, most people are wearing masks. The people that can should, and that will give us this overall reduction of the spread of coronavirus.”

The Bucks County Commissioners expressed their support of mask-wearing.

“We have to use a little bit of common sense,” said Gene DiGirolamo. “And the important message that we have to get to our young people is, please wear a mask. You look at the statistics and see that young people are not really the ones dying from this, but you have to remember that if you’re not wearing a mask and you do get COVID, you could possibly be giving it to your family members, parents, grandparents and other people you’re engaging with.”

“This fight isn’t over,” added Bob Harvie. “We see what’s happening in other states and it is having an impact on us. People are going to other states where mask requirements aren’t as strong, or they’re engaged in activities and just not thinking about the mask anymore, or they’re tired of thinking about masks. Protect yourself, protect other people. I think that’s what the governor’s order is about, just reminding us that we have to stay on top of this.”

According to Damsker, Bucks County is currently averaging about 26 new COVID-19 cases per day, with almost half of these new cases involving individuals who became infected while out of state. Many recently traveled to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

“It shows you that here in Bucks County, our community spread is pretty good,” Damsker said. “People need to take the same precautions that we’re taking here whenever they go on vacations. I think people should, at least for the next few weeks, maybe take a second look at their travel plans.”

Even if cases do increase, Damsker explained that as long as the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients is low, the county is still in good shape.

“The death numbers are going to go up after the hospitalization numbers. The numbers of hospitalized Bucks County residents is the first thing we look at because 99.9 percent of the time, people don’t die without being in the hospital first,” he said. “Hospitalizations mean more [than community spread numbers]. We could have 1,000 cases a day, but if we have nobody in the hospital, then it doesn’t really matter, and I think that’s the way we need to look at it going forward, whether we get nervous or not.”

When asked what could potentially cause Bucks County to slip back into the “yellow” stage of Wolf’s Phased Reopening Plan, Damsker said the closing of certain high-risk locations is more likely – and more efficient – than reverting backward.

“What I don’t like about yellow is, it penalizes businesses that are doing the right thing. There were probably bars in Allegheny County that were doing what they should’ve been doing, and they were penalized right along with the bars that weren’t,” he said. “We’re looking at more of a specific focus on the businesses that are not doing right. Going back to yellow doesn’t make sense if hair salons and gyms and places like that aren’t causing any problems. It doesn’t make sense to penalize everybody. We’re looking at things that are high-risk and, at least here in Bucks County, that’s how we’re going to move forward.”

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com