Jodi Marlin
May 13, 2020 // Diocese

Why are face masks important at this time?

Jodi Marlin

The celebration of public Masses in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend will resume the weekend of May 23-24, as directed by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades.

One of the weightiest considerations in formulating a plan to resume Masses, according to diocesan Office of Worship director Brian MacMichael, was how to celebrate liturgies while at the same time taking all possible precautions for preserving the health of all participants and protecting them from exposure to the novel coronavirus. Among the precautions in place will be the requirement that some form of mask covering the nose and mouth be worn while worshipping.

Jim Donlan, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis, assembles a mask in his garage April 9, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. The retired firefighter has made and given away some 2,800 masks that can be used to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. (CNS photo/Sean Gallagher, The Criterion)

MacMichael said the mandate of wearing masks in the context of COVID-19 is not intended as a means to force an individual to protect himself or herself, but rather a way to protect others. Cloth or surgical masks are ineffective at keeping the virus from entering (as opposed to the N95 respirators used by health care workers), but they do a much better job of containing droplets from one’s own respiration.

“This is particularly important because researchers believe that an infected individual is most contagious while still asymptomatic,” MacMichael noted. “I personally think that wearing a mask is a small inconvenience in exchange for returning to Mass and helping keep our more vulnerable brothers and sisters in Christ safer — including older members of our clergy, who don’t have as easy a choice to sit Sunday out.”

Dr. Thomas McGovern of Fort Wayne is a former clinical infectious disease researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and a Catholic Medical Association board member. Noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Indiana State Department of Health both recommend cloth face masks to be worn in public, Dr. McGovern pointed out that because attending Mass is a unique example of social interaction, requiring them of those who are in attendance is prudent.

“These (the CDC and DOH) recommendations apply to places like grocery and retail stores, where 6-foot distancing cannot always be maintained but where there is brief contact with others,” he noted. “We will be in our churches for longer periods of time than the relatively brief contact in stores. There is also evidence that 6-foot distancing is not always sufficient to prevent spread. Also, a recent study of Taiwan’s first 100 COVID-19 cases revealed that many people contracted COVID-19 from exposure to infected people who had no symptoms. Therefore, isolating symptomatic patients (who should not attend Mass) to prevent spreading infection will not be sufficient to protect others.”

According to Dr. McGovern and other experts, even cloth-grade masks are effective in preventing the transmission of the virus to others via tiny droplets issued when a person, who could be infected but asymptomatic, coughs, sneezes, sings or speaks. “Wearing your mask primarily protects others from you — in case you are infected and don’t have symptoms,” he said. “Those who want to forego a mask because they are not concerned about contracting COVID-19 may not realize that foregoing a mask puts others at risk.”

“Wearing a mask also reminds us not to touch our faces. Disease is often transmitted by touching our eyes, nose, or mouth with our fingers that have touched surfaces contaminated by the hands or respiratory droplets of infected individuals.

“Masks work more effectively when combined with hand hygiene,” Dr. McGovern added. “I would encourage parishioners to bring hand sanitizer and/or sanitizing wipes to Mass.

“We have the privilege of returning to Mass, and we want to maintain that privilege. Case numbers have not yet decreased significantly, and if we are not careful to prevent another increase in cases through wise public health actions, we might find ourselves restricted from Mass attendance once again.”

Importantly, wearing masks has the potential to make a difference in the big picture of the pandemic. Current research puts the efficacy for eliminating the pandemic as high, if the wearing of face masks is used in conjunction with social distancing and other precautions.

“Masks, hand hygiene, and distancing are buying time to preserve hospital resources, develop a vaccine, and develop effective medications,” said Dr. McGovern. “We are all in this together. Wear your mask and sanitize your hands — for yourselves, but mostly for your neighbor. That’s a very Catholic thing to do.”

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