Jul 10, 2020


Interviewer: At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, no one could have really known the importance of wearing a mask, but now we know differently.

Dr. Tom Miller is the Chief Medical Officer at University of Utah Health. So, Dr. Miller, this little simple cloth mask I have here, is this really the key to keeping the economy open, getting back to some normalcy and also keeping other people safe?

Dr. Miller: Yes, it is. In fact, masks are the pill that we now have, right? We don't have a medicine you can take by mouth or a vaccine, but masks work. They help really reduce the rate of transmission. And if we're all wearing masks, it will really cut the contagion. It will cut the rate of infection.

Interviewer: I think the confusion that I had anyway, and I'd imagine a lot of people had is when I normally wore a mask before this, it's when I'm insulating my attic, or when I'm working out in the shop with sawdust.

Dr. Miller: Sure.

Interviewer: And it's to protect me so that I'm like, "Well, how good could this cloth mask be?" But it's not about protecting me. It's about stopping those droplets and protecting you.

Dr. Miller: It is about that. It's both ways. But primarily, for the cloth masks, think about it. You sneeze or you cough and that barrier prevents the vast majority of those droplets from getting out into the open air where others can inhale them and be infected.

Interviewer: Some examples I've heard and I'd love to hear your example as well, there was a hair salon in Springfield, Missouri. Two of the workers had COVID, didn't know it because that's the thing here, like right, most other illnesses you know when you have it, so you can remove yourself, but this one, they didn't know. But everybody had to wear masks. Out of 140 customers and 6 co-workers, nobody was infected, which is just amazing.

Dr. Miller: I think this shows that wearing masks in situations where people are working closely makes a very big difference.

Interviewer: I heard another case, a man flew from China to Toronto, and he tested positive for COVID-19. According to the story, he had a dry cough, but he wore a mask on the flight and all 25 people closest to him on the flight tested negative for COVID-19. I mean, he had a dry cough too, but that mask protected those people around him. Another great story.

Dr. Miller: It did. And you have other countervailing stories where an infected person is on the plane and not masked and those near them are infected. And so it really seems that, right now, the mask is our best pill, and it is hard to learn to wear a mask. It's not an easy thing to accept initially. It's a bit like wearing a seatbelt first. I mean, you have to do it over and over again until it becomes automatic. And I would venture that the mask for a lot of people is certainly not that comfortable. But we can become used to wearing them.

One of the things that's tough is just I think getting over the belief that you don't need a mask, that there's some potential negative about wearing a mask, that it means maybe you're not strong, maybe that you're not . . . these are intellectual constructs that I think we have to sort of help convince other people that if we were mask, that society will be better, safer, healthier in the long run. And one of the things that's important is when we see people who aren't masked, not to get mad and angry and blame other people.

It's really about how can we convince other people to be safe? Well, the first step is by practicing what we preach, so doing the things that are important -- physical distancing, and wearing the mask in public. And then also not chastising or calling people out in a blameful way, being mad at people, showing anger towards people who are not wearing masks. That only creates greater separation.

The Mask Utah campaign is really important because, you know, they've got people wearing masks and on it says: I do this for my mom. I do this for my friends. I do this for my son or my grandparents. I do this for my colleagues. And those are the kinds of things where it gives us agency and the reason to respect the reason for barrier protection, that if we don't believe it ourselves, that we might do it for others. And that's a pretty genuine human emotion and feeling, you know, helping others.

Interviewer: Finally, I know that there are some people that are a little nervous about reopening the economy and not isolating anymore. Is the mask really the pill that we need to get back to work, get back to some normalcy?

Dr. Miller: We know that self-isolating and closing down businesses and really shutting down the economy worked. It brought the rates of infection way down, not only in Utah, but around the country. But eventually, we have to get back to work. People have to pay their bills, pay their mortgages, and they don't want . . . you know, people are suffering. What we can do to bridge the gap to get back to work and to stay safe or as safe as we can be from this infection is to wear masks, practice physical distancing, and hand washing. This is the best way for us to reengage the economy and to stay as safe as possible.

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