Health Beat: Mask mandates and the health of our community

Dr. James H. Quirk, Chief Medical Officer at Partnership Health Center.

Many in our community and nation have engaged in a robust debate about the benefit of wearing a face-covering in public and when social distancing is not possible. As a family physician with 20 years of experience, I have a unique perspective and ability to evaluate the scientific literature surrounding COVID-19.

Further, as Chief Medical Officer at Partnership Health Center, I have a unique responsibility to ensure that my evaluation is in the best interest of the 16,000 patients we serve, my colleagues caring for those patients, and the broader populations of Missoula and Mineral Counties.

The science is clear. COVID-19 is best battled with simple measures: face coverings, social distancing and frequent handwashing.

Masks work. Studies indicate that if a majority of a population wears a face-covering, it decreases the number of people who will get COVID. In a July 14 press release, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that “there is increasing evidence that cloth face coverings help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others.”

This statement aligns with my thorough examination of peer-reviewed scientific data from a variety of reputable sources including the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Throughout my medical education and career as a physician, JAMA, the CDC and others have been reliable and helpful resources for improving the health and wellbeing of patients in my care.

That is my primary motivation: to improve the health and wellbeing of patients in our care. My colleagues and I have worked closely with local and state public health officials throughout this pandemic, and their motivation is unsurprisingly similar: to protect members of our community and state from harm through science-based decision making.

We are tremendously fortunate to live in a community where our local Health Department has the expertise and courage to make decisions that are not based on political considerations, but rather based on level-headed scientific analysis.

I fully support our local and state mask requirements as they send a clear and unequivocal message that wearing a mask protects us all from this disease. It is with a great deal of gratitude that I have noted that most individuals and businesses continue complying with these requirements. These efforts will play an enormous role in expediting things like our economic recovery and return to in-person learning in schools.

Opposition against these requirements can be examined through a similar public-health requirement: a ban on smoking in public places adopted by the Missoula City-County Health Board. The rationale for this ban states:

[…] Pursuant to Article II, Section 3 of Montana’s Constitution, all persons have certain inalienable rights which include a constitutional “right to a clean and healthful environment.” And pursuant to Article IX, Section 1 of Montana’s Constitution, “the state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” With respect to this right and correlating duty, it is the intent of the City Council, the Board of County Commissioners, and the City County Health Board (Health Board) in enacting this health ordinance to prescribe requirements concerning smoking tobacco in order to provide for a clean and healthful environment and to protect the health and safety of Missoula visitors and residents from exposure to smoke in environments not under their control”

We do not allow smoking in indoor and outdoor public spaces because it negatively impacts the health of non-smokers and infringes on the rights of these individuals to live without the burden of breathing contaminated air. The right to breathe clean air in public spaces should and does supersede the desire of individuals to smoke in those same public spaces.

A masking policy and ordinance is a natural extension of this type of reasonable public health policy. The Health Officer Order for face-coverings enacted by our Local Board of Health improves the prospects of health and wellbeing not only for Partnership Health Center’s patients and staff – whose safety is my personal responsibility – but also of our entire community.

This pandemic is a jolting, frightening experience for all of us. Parents, businesses, workers and others face unprecedented challenges. All of those challenges deserve thoughtful consideration. As we evaluate which direction to move under the pressure stemming from this virus, it is undeniable that risk surrounds us. But the fact remains – the presence of COVID-19 in our communities underpins all of that risk.

If we can act, now, in solidarity with our fellow community members by continuing to take simple protective measures – wearing a mask, washing our hands, and maintaining appropriate social distancing – we will all be better off.

Please #MaskUpMontana. We will get through this together.

Dr. James H. Quirk is a family physician and Chief Medical Officer at Partnership Health Center in Missoula, MT.