DO MASKS EVEN WORK? Touching Base with PMC

COVID-19 activity in and around Pondera County has risen. Our cases have increased to a level that currently requires masking, per orders from Governor Bullock. Montana, in general, has seen a surge in cases and a surge in hospitalizations, even as many as 224 new cases in one day. A spread was to be expected as we reopened, although maybe not to this extent. Moving forward, the outlook for Pondera County can best be determined by how we proceed as individuals working towards a team goal.

The debates surrounding COVID-19 and all that it affects are a heated, contentious topic right now. From the severity of the virus to masking and its effectiveness, to what is essential and what isn’t, and many other ripple effect discussions of the COVID-19 nucleus. We don’t have a lot of the answers that everyone is looking for. But we do know a few things. The virus doesn’t discriminate for age—we’ve even had a pediatric case in Pondera County. We have been able to keep the virus out of our nursing homes and assisted living facilities, fortunately, but based on other cases statewide and nationally, we know the older population is most vulnerable. We know the virus seems very contagious and we know how each individual will react in unpredictable; although studies are showing that most children will not spread it as easily or have as hard of symptoms.

What would it look like if we had an outbreak in Pondera County? Even a small outbreak in our elderly population could quickly overwhelm our ability to manage the illness. An outbreak in our schools could result in closures and distance learning for a period of time. Specific to PMC, we have gone to great lengths to make sure our Extended Care Facility does not have exposure. The results in other nursing homes have been devastating. We are taking every precaution, as difficult as it gets because we just cannot take chances with our beloved residents. Additional impacts to PMC are considering the way our staff could be affected. Direct exposures to patients who are positive for COVID, whether they know it or not, who are not in proper PPE will result in a 14-day quarantine. In a rural hospital, a small but mighty team, most individuals wear a lot of hats. Immediate replacements in any department aren’t possible. Operations would become difficult if even 5 employees were directed to quarantine. So, it is vital to consider others in our community when making decisions on how we are interacting with them.

So, do masks work? That seems to be the debate surrounding conversation- both casual and professional- in recent weeks. The question of masking is one of many that seems to be getting asked over and over, along with an ETA for “normalcy.” The short answer is, yes, masks work. That’s what we are getting from the experts and in healthcare, we listen to the experts. Experts are saying that masks can reduce transmission by up to 70% and if that helps keep even one person from falling ill or one person from dying due to this virus, we think it’s worth it. Masks have been used in the medical field for centuries. They’ve also been used to protect firefighters, farmers and ranchers around grain dust, those working with hazardous materials, and to protect us from severe cold. The protection factor is nothing new to us- we just haven’t seen public use of masks for a virus because we’ve never seen a pandemic of this severity.

Yes, we encourage the masks. There is much resistance to the masking mandate locally, statewide, and nationally. We understand it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable; and in cases, it’s not possible! First and foremost, protect your health and be aware of your condition. If you are able to mask, find one that is comfortable for you and the style that sits well and can be effective covering your nose and mouth. Wash your mask often to prevent smells that may be unpleasant; and certainly, don’t be afraid to find a pattern or style you enjoy showing your friends and neighbors- Go Cowboys?! Go Panthers?! Go Warriors?! To help your children adjust to masking, allow them time to get acclimated to masking, allow them to choose a pattern they enjoy, and maybe decorate the masks together and make it fun! Lastly, explain to them what’s happening around us. Let them know they are part of a solution and that they should be proud of themselves!

In the early days of the pandemic, when we thought schools would be closed for two weeks and then we’d resume life as we knew it, there was differing advice on masking. Outside of a healthcare setting, masks were not encouraged early on. Part of that was studies were being conducted on surface-spread, and another part was the universal shortage of masks and PPE available. Respiratory droplets have now been identified as the transmission mode of COVID-19. Now that we have accumulated masks through suppliers and generous sewers donating homemade masks, supply is at a point where we can both encourage mask use and provide the masks.

There is no doubt we find ourselves in a tough position. Phase 2 means that places have opened up and events have started to happen again. When we first entered Phase 2, it felt like normal life was resuming. Then our cases started to rise drastically and Montana’s death toll hit us hard. We backtracked as we reopened and now the outlook feels even more uncertain as we navigate school in the fall, sports, visitors, events, travel. It’s been a difficult time on all of us; and it will take all of us to move forward.

Soon, we will be offering our flu vaccine, like we do every year. It arrives early fall and reminds us that influenza season and seasonal colds are fast approaching. We are fighting a virus with no certain treatment, without a vaccine, with asymptomatic spread, and that we have no data or history to learn from. COVID-19 is clearly easily spread in warm weather. And we are doing all of this while influenza season looms. When it comes to putting up a good defense, the only thing we have is prevention. It’s a challenging situation we are in. We are attempting to solve our health pandemic during economic struggle, and attempting to solve our economic struggle during a health pandemic. It’s unfortunate that one has so much effect on the other- along with many other ripple effects. We hurt for our friends and neighbors who have struggled the past 6-months.

The longevity of this trying time comes down to our group effort. It will take the majority of our communities to come together in masking, social distancing, practicing hand hygiene and delaying large gatherings for the time being to protect our loved ones and keep our small businesses from getting shut down again, and to have the chance to send our kids back to school in the fall. With limited resources, including ventilators, our collective efforts to slow the spread are what give us an opportunity to rise above this pandemic and take care of our own.

Are we going to protect our essential workers? Our most vulnerable? Our loved ones? Teachers... neighbors… friends… colleagues.

We hope the answer from everyone is “yes” and we hope the desire to take care of each other is greater than the divide we’ve seen and felt in recent months. Pondera Medical Center is here for you because we know you are here for us too. We’re going to get through this; and we are going to do it together. Come together, unite, stand tall, and wear a mask.

Thanks for joining us in the fight.