Boulder County health officials urge mask use while exercising, but science says distancing is more effective

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Saturday, April 18, 2020

Everyone should be wearing masks to keep transmission of COVID-19 trending down, Boulder County’s top health official said this week. The advice comes amid multiple days of declines in new cases and hospitalizations — though deaths are mounting — and increasing calls for post-lockdown plans to prepare for life after coronavirus.

There were 342 positive cases in Boulder County as of 3:30 p.m. Saturday. To day, 89 people have been hospitalized and 147 have fully recovered. Nineteen people have died from coronavirus; 58 investigations are ongoing.

Though total hospitalizations and deaths continue to climb, those are likely from transmissions that occurred days or weeks ago. New cases continue to trend downward.

Screen Shot 2020-04-18 at 7.45.59 PM Screen Shot 2020-04-18 at 7.47.03 PM

Source: Boulder County Public Health. (Note: Bottom chart is updated weekly on Mondays)

What comes next?

Elected officials and business representatives are getting jumpy to get back outside. Zayach, multiple times, addressed questions about what happens when the statewide stay-at-home order expires on April 26.

Boulder County will follow the governor’s lead, Zayach said. But he cautioned against moving too quickly.

Related: “Polis hints Colorado on track to partially open economy when stay-at-home order expires on April 27Denver Post

There are many things that need to be in place before people get back to work and socializing, Zayach said, including widespread testing — still lacking due to a dearth of supplies — the ability to monitor and track transmissions, which includes adequate medical staff. More people are being trained now, Zayach said, to shore up the workforce.

The most important factor, though, is a long-enough period where cases aren’t climbing.

“We haven’t seen a sustained reduction in cases for the last 14 days,” Zayach said. So, “please stay at home.”

Masked for good (or at least for awhile)

Zayach also issued advice regarding masks. The CDC and Colorado’s governor have both recommended the use of cloth masks for the general public. They have not been mandated — except for employees of essential businesses — due to lack of supplies and the difficulty of enforcement, Zayach said.

You should be wearing masks every time you go outside, Zayach said — “especially when you’re exercising.”

“I know that’s awkward for people, but that is an important time to be wearing masks,” Zayach said. They’re intended to protect other ppl from you. “Unless everyone is wearing masks, we don’t have two-way control.”

But active Boulderites have chafed at the discomfort of running or biking with their mouths and noses covered. Conflicting reports on the efficacy of masks has created confusion, guilt and shaming.

Boulder-based Taisa Kushner, a member of the Federation of American Scientists’ COVID-19 Ask A Scientist team, said that physical distancing is by far more important than masks. The risk of catching an infection due to someone else breathing in your general vicinity is absurdly low, Kushner said.

The larger particles that are known to transmit coronavirus typically fall to the ground before someone can pass through them. And the concept of viral load comes into play as well. Viruses aren’t like a dangerous substance like plutonium, where the smallest exposure can have devastating effects. It’s prolonged exposure that increases viral load and therefore the risk of serious illness.

“Think of it kind of like smoking,” Kushner said. “If you run past someone who is smoking, you’re not going to get lung cancer from that interaction, but if you’re in an enclosed room with someone smoking for weeks at a time,” your risk is higher.

The likelihood that you’ll encounter a live virus on a surface is higher than you encountering it through” the air.

That’s why makeshift measures can be more dangerous, she said: Wearing a face covering that you take on and off as people approach increases the risk of contact exposure.

Running and the Science Behind Mask Wearing” by Taisa Kushner for Oiselle

Have COVID questions? Ask a team from the Federation of American Scientists with this simple online form

Kushner herself has not worn a mask while running, instead giving a wide berth to passersby and exercising at times when others aren’t out and about.

Masks are important “when you can’t distance,” she said, such as in a grocery store or, perhaps, on a crowded open space trail. 

Zayach himself couched his advice in terms of take-no-chances and an all-of-the-above approach. It’s important to have them on in case an infected person coughs near enough that large particles get on you, he said multiple times, but masks alone won’t do the trick.

“What I don’t want people to do is think masks are the be-all, end-all,” Zayach said. Frequent hand-washing, social distancing and not touching your face are all still critical.

Because cloth masks don’t offer the same protection as medical ones — and those are needed for health care workers — it’s important to have strength in numbers, Zayach said. Just as some degree of social distancing will likely be necessary until a vaccine is developed, so, too, should Americans get used to covering their faces.

“Masks are going to be an important component regardless of how we move forward,” he said. “We’re going to be in a mask situation for quite some time.”

Hospitals well-supplied

Boulder County’s hospitals are holding up well, according to Dr. Robert Vissers, CEO of Boulder Community Health. There are plenty of beds and ventilators available for now.

All workers and patients are being screened for symptoms every day, Vissers said. There have been no positives in over a week, and the 13 employees who have tested positive thus far contracted the virus in the community, not the hospital.

“The message is: It’s working,” Vissers said, referring to stay-at-home orders, social distancing and mask-wearing. “This is an encouragement to continue, not to let up.

“It is making a difference. It’s saving lives.”

Read a play-by-play of Tuesday’s discussion.
(Note: Also includes discussion of city of Boulder employee furloughs.)

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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0 Comments Leave a comment

  1. This seems very strange to me (despite some deeper explanations in the article). Please ask Taisa if this is what she really means. “Boulder-based Taisa Kushner, a member of the Federation of American Scientists’ COVID-19 Ask A Scientist team, said that physical distancing is by far more important than masks. The risk of catching an infection due to someone else breathing in your general vicinity is absurdly low, Kushner said.”

    • Hi, Jon. I was surprised, too. But I interviewed her and that was indeed what she said. Studies mimicking the virus in the air didn’t really replicate natural conditions, and though they measured particles that contained the virus, there weren’t any studies that *then* linked the existence of particles to an infection rate. Put another way, the particles might be present, but it’s not known what quantity is enough to create an infection. She spoke at length about this; she also said that if coronavirus was as highly contagious as, say, measles, which is transmitted through the air by breathing, it would have a greater R nought (like measles). However, the larger particles that are present when someone coughs are infectious: That’s why health officials recommend masks. Because you never know when you might run into someone who could cough on/near you.

      I hope that clears it up! Sorry for the novel!

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