The politicization of wearing masks to slow the spread of COVID-19 is disheartening and gets in the way of battling the virus, Knox County Health Department Director Martha Buchanan said Monday.
In a midday press briefing, Dr. Buchanan held up a face mask and said, "It is disheartening that these little things have become an unfortunate politicized symbol. They are really just a simple safety measure to help protect our community, in the same vein as seat belts, life jackets and speed limits."
About 90 minutes before Buchanan spoke, KCHD announced 93 new COVID cases had been confirmed in the county, bringing the count of active cases to 495. Three people have died since Friday, the youngest of which was 37 years old.
“COVID-19 is real," Buchanan said. "It’s making people sick and causing people to die in our community. And it is not a partisan issue. It is an issue of our community’s health and well being.”
Buchanan said she has heard from many people with different opinions about the Knox County Board of Health's decision to require face masks in many indoor public places. Based on that feedback, Buchanan said, most of the partisan rancor about face coverings appears to come from misinformation about COVID-19 and what masks are intended to do.
"As your public health officer, it's my responsibility to share the facts," she said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, health experts did not recommend masks for healthy people. Since then, Buchanan said, the researchers have learned a lot about how people who feel fine (asymptomatic and presymptomatic people) unknowingly spread the novel coronavirus through droplets expelled when sneezing, coughing or speaking. That's why face coverings are a good idea when physical distancing isn't possible.
"Even a simple cloth face covering can block many droplets from reaching others," she said. "My mask protects you and your mask protects me, as we've said many times."
The health department director reminded Knox Countians the mandate applies only to most indoor public places, not homes or personal vehicles. And it's intended for places where six feet of physical distance is difficult or impossible to maintain. Therefore outdoor places, such as parks, are not included. Other exceptions exist, and can be found in the text of the public health order.
Buchanan pleaded for less confrontational stances on wearing masks. "Whether you agree with wearing a face covering or not, it helps no one when you are unkind to others," she said.
Nationally, polling data has shown a majority of Americans wear masks when out in public, and most people support COVID-related public health measures even when pollsters cast the restrictions in a skeptical light. A vocal minority have opposed policy and practice, in some cases arming themselves at government buildings to make their point.
Some Republican politicians have had to reconsider their hands-off approaches as COVID cases surge in some parts of the country -- governors in Texas and Arizona closed bars and restaurants again; the mayor of Williamson County, a Middle Tennessee GOP stronghold, quickly issued a mask mandate after Governor Bill Lee authorized it; and Republican-led Sevier and Blount counties are looking at possible measures that may be announced this week.
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, a libertarian, has acknowleged COVID-19 is a public health threat while holding fast to his objection to a public health order on principle: he prefers leaving the decision up to individuals and businesses. After casting the sole "no" vote on the mask mandate July 1, Jacobs lamented that the order is a requirement, not a request.
At the same meeting July 1, Buchanan said simply asking hasn't worked, evidenced by recent rises in new cases and hospitalizations. "If we have any hope of slowing the spread of this virus, this board must act swiftly," she said.
Dr. Patrick O'Brien, a physician who sits on the board and who drafted the mask order, said he didn't want the order to last "any longer than we need it." The board agreed to continue evaluating the order at its future meetings, which are scheduled every two weeks.