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As Connecticut slowly reopens, public health experts say masks still key

For infectious disease epidemiologist Sten Vermund, getting within 6 feet of another person without a mask on while out in public is just as dangerous and irresponsible as running a red light.

It's a choice that primarily puts other people at risk and is socially irresponsible.

You don't run a red light because you don't want to hurt yourself or others, said Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health. The same logic can be applied to wearing a mask. You wear it to benefit yourself, but also to help protect others, particularly those who are more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.

As Connecticut businesses begin to welcome customers again as part of the first phase of reopening the state's economy, public health experts say wearing a mask, regularly washing our hands and maintaining social distance will be essential to avoiding a spike in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Some seem to think the masks are less necessary outdoors but health experts emphasize that if you can't maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from someone else, even outdoors, you should wear a mask.

Restaurants began offering outside dining on Wednesday, and Mary Day, a nurse practitioner with Ledge Light Health District, said best practice is to keep your mask on until you have to eat or drink and then put it back on.

"We should be wearing a face cloth or covering at all times when in public, unless outdoors and safely 6 feet away," Dr. Deidre S. Gifford, acting commissioner for the state Department of Public Health, said at Lamont's May 18 coronavirus briefing.

Cases still climbing

Data released by Gov. Ned Lamont's office Saturday showed 40,022 confirmed COVID-19 cases, an increase of 382 from what the state reported Friday, 3,675 associated deaths, 38 more than Friday's numbers, and 724 patients currently hospitalized, a decrease of 16 from Friday.

In New London County, the state's data showed 970 cases, an increase of 60 from the day before, with 20 people hospitalized, one fewer than on Friday, and 72 associated deaths, the same as the day before.

While all other local towns saw an increase in cases between zero and three from Friday's report to Saturday's report, cases went up by 48 in Montville, from 110 to 158.

Patrick McCormack, director of Health for Uncas Health District, said his understanding is that cases from Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center have been batched and that's why we're seeing a large number of cases at once.

Karen Martucci, spokesperson for the state Department of Correction, said she can't say with 100% certainty that the spike in Montville cases is due to the correctional facility but said it's likely, noting that the DOC started mass testing the inmate population this past week.

She said all 1,009 inmates at Corrigan were tested between mid-week and Friday. She also said results come in batches.

The department updates data on its website daily Monday-Friday. The data show 110 total positive cases so far at Corrigan as of Friday, the same number of cases reported in total so far in Montville on Friday.

Amid reopenings, spike expected

As states lift stay-at-home orders and other restrictions put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, some have had a spike in cases.

"As we reopen, we know there's going to be an uptick in cases. We expected that," said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a Westport resident and former head of the Food and Drug Administration, who joined Lamont virtually at his May 19 coronavirus briefing.

"We're going to see more hospitalizations. We're going to see cases grow," Gottlieb said. "That's why it's important to have a staged reopening, as this state is doing, and look at the data and lean heavily on those case-based interventions to try to reduce the number of cases that we see increase as a result of our increased social interactions."

On an individual level, that means continuing to wear masks, practice good hygiene and stay 6 feet apart from others.

"Those kind of individual practices done on a large scale have a dramatic impact on an epidemic spread," Gottlieb said.

Day, the health district nurse practitioner, said these measures are our best defenses against COVID-19 until a vaccine is widely available.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that the general public wear cloth-based masks or face coverings. While not medical-grade, these cloth masks still help to prevent someone from transmitting the virus to others by containing respiratory droplets generated when coughing, sneezing or talking, which is primarily how COVID-19 spreads, Day said.

Given that a significant portion of those with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, wearing a mask can help prevent someone from unknowingly spreading the virus to others, she said. On top of that, the incubation period for COVID-19 is two to 14 days, so someone could be infected with the virus for up to two weeks before experiencing symptoms, she said.

Some people have pushed back against Lamont's executive order requiring Connecticut residents to wear masks or cloth face coverings whenever they come within 6 feet of another person in a public place, saying it infringes upon their civil liberties.

Day and Vermund said to think of it as a courteous act you are doing to protect others.

"It is a reasonable compromise of your personal liberty to protect your fellow Connecticut residents and your neighbors with a simple set of principles: mask use, personal hygiene, physical distancing," Vermund said.

If not for yourself, Day said, do it for those who are at high risk for severe complications from COVID-19, such as the elderly, the immunocompromised and those with chronic health conditions.

"Do it for the health care workers and first responders who are risking their lives to care for COVID-19 patients," she said. "Consider the burden that COVID-19 has placed on our health care system."

Day said there is a subset of people who should not wear face masks, including children under the age of 2, anyone who has trouble breathing while wearing a mask, such as those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, asthma or other respiratory illnesses, those who may not be able to tolerate wearing a mask, and anyone who is not able to remove a mask by his or herself.

As for best practices when wearing a mask, Day said it should:

  • Fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face.
  • Cover the nose and mouth.
  • Be secured with ties or ear loops.
  • Include at least two layers of cotton fabric.
  • Allow for breathing without restriction.
  • Be able to be washed and dried without damage or change to shape.
  • Washed regularly and stored in a brown paper bag when done using.

Day Staff Writer Erica Moser contributed to this report.


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