I’ve been doing a lot of researching regarding masks. We have some information, and anything that we don’t get to I will follow up with on Friday. Here is a general perception of where we are: right now, for the health of Virginians, the most important thing is to get back to work. We’ve looked at the medical and scientific evidence we’ve accumulated, and we can now edit our initial process of staying home and being isolated. By not considering someone’s financial health, we are not looking at their whole health. We’ve now shifted to a focus on getting back to work, and to make sure we have an economic engine that can sustain the wellbeing of our citizens.
On masks, there are reasonable precautions to take. In medicine, we make decisions based on the lesser evil, and taking precautions that are greater than necessary because what we are protecting is so important. There is little to no evidence that shows that masks cause harm.
We’ve posted a study online that shows, in Great Britain, three scenarios where everyone stayed home and didn’t work, to everyone going back to work wearing masks, and a third alternative where everyone went back to work with only half the population wearing masks. The lowest transmission rate was where people went back to work and 80% of people wore masks, this is like herd participation. I advocate for masks because the scientific evidence is there, and we’ll learn more as we go on.
We are now at Phase 0.5; we didn’t really open to Phase 1 because there are still a lot of obstacles in our way. We should wear masks so we can get the economy reopened. With that in mind, I believe that the government should be involved in decision making, but only in the most extraordinary emergency situations. Since we are in the downslope of the crisis, I don’t think it’s appropriate for the government to start regulating people’s behavior. I think this is a violation of constitutional freedoms, and overall it’s a bad call. I’d rather the government buy into getting people to wear masks for safety, than make masks a political argument, which is where we are now because we’ve had a lack of leadership in communicating that well.
Let’s look at other states, because a comparative analysis can help show where we stand. Connecticut and Hawaii have made the decision to require everyone to wear masks in public. Most of the time, these decisions are made by cities, not by the whole state. In Hawaii, there’s a $5,000 fine and a year in jail if you violate that order. Maryland requires commuters and employees to wear face coverings, and many other states are doing that too. New Jersey requires face coverings. Rhode Island and Pennsylvania have looked at this, as have Florida and Alabama.
Florida and Alabama are two states that have opened up the earliest, so we have the most data from there. There, masks are recommended but not required. Florida reopened on May 4th, we can share the link to the Florida Department of Health website. They’ve been open for three weeks, and they’ve continued to have a downward trend in percent positive, and it has not changed the trajectory for illness. They have not made a mandatory requirement for masks, and yet they’ve still had a great outcome. Alabama has a similar story, their stay at home order expired on April 30th. They have about half the deaths Virginia does, and they’ve opened up more expansively than Florida has, and they are still on a downward trend.
I believe what’s happened in Virginia is political overreach, and it’s frustrating because political decisions push aside decisions that are actually good for Virginia. The conversation then becomes about an irrelevant idea, and not about the overall goal, which is about keeping people safe and opening the economy. It doesn’t have to be either/or, both can be achieved. We have evidence to support that both can be done.
Looking at both Florida and Alabama can create a mosaic for what Virginia looks like, because Florida has had more deaths, and Alabama has had fewer deaths than Virginia. Southwest Virginia has had little to no disease, and they still have to wear masks. Individual businesses should be able to decide for themselves if they want customers to wear masks. In Alabama, vulnerable individuals are encouraged to exercise personal responsibility to prevent the spread of COVID, and that is what I believe in, personal responsibility. Even if someone is against wearing masks, I ask that you do consider wearing one for the time being, until we have more evidence. Then, we can keep the conversation on opening up the economy. What works for northern Virginia where there is a dense population and a higher rate of illness is not the same as southwest Virginia.
A lot of the frustration I’ve been hearing and the questions I’ve been getting are about mask wearing, and frustration with the Governor for not following his own regulations. The science about mask wearing is still early, we’re still trying to fit the pieces together. Without clear and convincing evidence, we lean towards the side of caution. Using critical thinking, it makes sense that blocking exposure will help prevent transmission of illness.
In an emergency situation, we have to think critically about the role of the Governor. I believe that if an emergency situation goes on for more than 90 days, a special session should be called. There needs to be a balance of power. This might be another piece of legislation that I propose; if there is another emergency situation declared for more than 90 days, a special session of the legislature needs to be called.
How quickly will we get to Phase 2?
I don’t know, because I don’t think we’re in Phase 1 yet. I hope Phase 2 really is Phase 2 and not just a completion of Phase 1. The data we have from the federal government states that we have to have 2-3 weeks of decreased numbers. The Virginia Department of Health data doesn’t always match up. Trajectory is still down for deaths and for percent positive. However, Florida is way ahead of us on testing, and the more people you test, the lower it seems the percent positive goes. The more people we test, the numbers will continue going down, right now we are around 14-15%. If we don’t set our conversation objectives to the right goals, we have no hope of achieving them. Right now, the goal is to protect the population, and to reopen the economy. We can’t lose sight of our goals. When I legislate, I try and keep my eye on the goals, so we don’t lose sight of what we really need to be doing.
How about the lack of science that supports cloth masks as useful against viruses?
You have to look at science in a very specific way. Research and data looks at subquestions of the overall question. Is the pore size in cloth small enough to prevent a virus from preventing it through that pore? The scientific answer is probably no. However, this virus does not go through those pores through the air, they travel through droplets. Cloth masks are sufficient to block most droplets. You have to make sure to compare like things. I will continue to advocate for you, and to serve as a sounding board for all the confusion.
I will be back on Friday with more data. We are on the descending slope of a crisis that we’ve managed effectively. We can move forward with far less intervention from the government. In my opinion, this is an overstep of the powers of the Governor. Lack of clarity is not okay. When special sessions are called for, they only have the power to work on what they’ve been called for. We need you to reach out to individuals on the Democratic side to vote down a misdemeanor or a fine for not wearing masks. This is the time for your civil voice to be heard.