Laura Seitz, KSL

Utah doctor explains reasoning behind new mask requirements

By Ryan Miller, | Posted - Jun. 29, 2020 at 7:46 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — Last week, citing the high number of novel coronavirus cases, Salt Lake and Summit counties issued orders that made it mandatory for citizens to wear masks.

Those health orders, and similar ones across the nation, have been somewhat controversial.

That’s due to some changing recommendations from health officials, which led to questions about the effectiveness of masks. For example, at the start of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn't recommend masks; now the organization does recommend them because recent studies have shown the most effective way to stop person-to-person spread is by wearing masks.

The controversy also stems from what some people consider government overreach. A reader responding to a recent survey said, “The government and the health department should not be telling people what to do with their health!”

And some people with health conditions have wondered whether a mask will be harmful to them.

But as more information and studies come in — Intermountain Healthcare, for example, recently did a study to see if N95 masks limited oxygen intake (they don't) — there's a near consensus among health experts that wearing a mask will help stop the spread of the virus.

To better understand the motivations behind the new mask protocols, talked with Dr. Eddie Stenhjem, an infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare. Read our conversation below:

Will any type of mask help stop the spread?

Stenhjem: “With the cotton face coverings that have been promoted throughout the state of Utah and (by the) CDC, what we can say is a cotton-base covering will definitely decrease the number of infectious particles that you emanate from your mouth. So when you wear a cotton face covering, you are really decreasing the chances you are able to transmit any COVID-19 if you are infected with that.

“We suspect there's also going to be protective benefits of wearing a cotton face covering, as well, if you were to encounter somebody that was unmasked and had COVID-19. We can't say how much protection — that's going to come from data that is forthcoming. But we definitely know that there is the benefit that masks essentially stop transmission into the environment, and you likely are decreasing your risk for getting COVID-19 exposed."

Is there any disease that would make it unsafe to wear a face covering?

Stenhjem: "Not really. Theoretically, people with very severe lung disease could potentially have some feelings of shortness of breath by wearing a cotton face covering. But keep in mind, even those patients with severe lung disease, when they enter the hospital, to protect them from other people, we have them wear a mask. So they may have a feeling of uncomfortableness, but we really don't think it's unsafe.

“A mask doesn't decrease the amount of oxygen you bring in. It also doesn't decrease the ability of you to excrete carbon dioxide. So in almost all cases, wearing a mask is safe.”

Why do you think people have formed the idea that masks can be harmful?

Stenhjem: “I think there's a lot out on social media as to potential risks of wearing masks. There's definitely a post about how masks decrease the amount of oxygen you can bring in, or it reduces your ability to emit carbon dioxide. All of those are completely unfounded and not rooted in science. And so, I think a lot of that is coming just from social media posts that aren't scientifically based.”

Who needs to wear a mask to help stop the spread?

Stenhjem: “Everybody, period. We need the whole community rallying behind us. When we are outside in enclosed spaces and areas where we can't social distance, think Costco, think grocery stores, think any kind of place of business, everybody needs to wear a face covering. We don't know who is asymptomatically infected and unknowingly transmitted this virus in these closed spaces. Because of that, everybody needs to wear a mask.”

Why have health officials changed their recommendations on masks since the pandemic began?

Stenhjem: “Our knowledge of this virus is six months old. At the beginning of the stages, we needed to make sure that all of our health care providers had ample personal protective equipment that we needed.

“Clearly, the epidemic has evolved in the United States, and here in Utah, to the point where we have significant community-based transmission. And because of that, we have to change the recommendation. And now we're at a point, given the level of community transmission there is, that face coverings are something we are going to have to get used to.”

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