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Mask or no mask?

Public health officials say face coverings and other measures may help stem the spread of COVID-19

— Daily Freeman-Journal photo by Anne Blankenship There is no mask mandate in Hamilton County but health officials encourage residents to wear face coverings. Opponents of forced mask wearing say the choice should be up to the individual.

To mask or not to mask, that is the question as Hamilton County citizens face the continuing threat of COVID-19 and debate the ways to combat it.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention advocates prevention techniques such as maintaining a six foot social distance between yourself and others and washing hands with soap and water or using a hand sanitizer which contains at least 60 percent alcohol.  Other prevention techniques include routinely cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and covering your mouth and nose with a mask when around other people.

It is that last method that has been become a controversial topic for government authorities, business owners and citizens not only in Hamilton County but across the world.

According the Webster City Mayor John Hawkins, Webster City doesn’t currently have a mask mandate and as of now, he doesn’t believe it is needed as most people are practicing safety measures and being courteous of others.

“Most people are doing the right thing,” said Hawkins in an interview on Sept. 16.  “Most people are wearing masks.”

While Hamilton County did not record any new cases for several days during the week of Sept. 13 – 19, Hawkins doesn’t believe that the county has reached a plateau and that any reprieve from new cases is only a pause.

“There was a lot of testing with the return to school, but it’s not going away,” Hawkins said of the spread.  

Hawkins noted that while there may be a drop in new infections, it may only reflect that less testing is being done rather than less spread is occurring.

Either way, Hawkins encouraged citizens to be mindful of the threat and keep in mind the safety of others.

“Be respectful about other people’s concerns,” he urged.

The issue was addressed by the Hamilton County Board of Public Health and on Aug. 20, the board passed a resolution for a county-wide mask mandate.   

Shelby Kroona, Hamilton County Board of Public Health Director brought the issue before the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 25.

Doug Bailey, a member of both boards, advocated for the resolution and made a motion to set a date for the first reading of the resolution.  Bailey was disappointed that the motion died for a lack of a second.

“This is not a political issue,” said Bailey.  “It’s a public health issue.  We need to be doing everything practical that can be done.  Wearing masks is the simplest, most cost-effective way to stop the spread of this virus.”

At the county board meeting, Roger Hayes of Stanhope opposed the mask mandate because he believes that government shouldn’t be in a position to enact regulations that limit free choice.

“It is not a question of whether it works or doesn’t work,” said Hayes.  “It is a question of respecting other people’s opinions and their freedom of choice.”

Hayes believes that the issue is a serious one and citizens should have the right to make their own informed decisions without government intervention.  Any action that restricts personal freedom should not be taken lightly, he said.  

In a phone interview, Hayes encouraged people with underlying health issues to protect themselves either by wearing a mask, practicing social distancing or by staying home.  In addition, people should be allowed to study the data and make an informed decision about their own personal safety.

“That is what our country was built on,” he said.  “When you first start losing your choices and freedoms, they are hard to get back.”

Also at the Supervisors meeting, Hamilton County Sheriff Doug Timmons reported that a county mask mandate could not be enforced because it has been declared unconstitutional by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller.

“I would never order county officers to enforce anything that is unconstitutional,” said Timmons.

In a phone interview, Timmons expanded on the mask mandate and the consequences for the county.

County officers wear masks when on call inside homes and in businesses, said Timmons.  They also wear masks in the jail area as do all prisoners and staff whenever they are in contact with the public, explained Timmons.

If a prisoner would contract Covid-19 while in custody, a uniformed officer would have to accompany that prisoner while in hospital and stay with them 24/7.  The medical costs of that prisoner and his uniformed protection would be the responsibility of the county.   

“That is a huge budget concern,” said Timmons.

“If everybody would just work together and be considerate of everybody as we move through this process, I believe we can get over this,” said Timmons.  “Be courteous to one another.”

Hamilton County Department of Public Health Director Shelby Kroona is focused on the number of cases, the spread and keeping the virus contained.

“In Hamilton County, there are 313 cases,” reported Kroona during the week of Sept. 13 – 19.  “There were eight new cases this week, 16 last week and eight the week before.  There is an uptick in cases and we are seeing more of family spread.”

Family spread happens when one member of a household introduces the virus into the home and the rest of the family becomes infected.   Because more school age children are testing positive, it is projected that the virus will continue to spread in the county, said Kroona.

Kroona said that the health department works to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and to educate the public.  One of those preventative techniques they promote is the use of masks.

“Masks have become controversial,” admitted Kroona.  “But masks should not be a controversial topic.”

Kroona noted that masks not only help to slow the spread of the virus, they help to flatten the curve so that health care systems and workers can keep up with the demand for medical treatment, supplies and equipment.   In addition, a mask can help reduce the spread to people who are elderly or immune-compromised.

Kroona pointed out that this month marks six months into the national effort to control the spread and people are getting Covid-fatigue.

Yet, this is not the time to let down one’s guard.

“People are tired of not seeing one another and not eating out,” she said.  “Everybody is tired and missing normal activities.   But the other hard part is getting the vaccine.”

Kroona reported that government sources predict a vaccine sometime in 2021.

“It’s going to last a lot longer time,” she said, warning that on top of Covid-19, the public needs to guard against the upcoming influenza season.

“Masks help to stop the spread of Covid, so maybe they will help reduce the effects of the flu,” she said.

Kroona cautioned the public not to be lulled into a sense of security because they live in a rural area that reports lower numbers of infections than cities or higher populated areas.

“People think because they live in a rural area that is not as densely populated, that they are immune from contracting the virus,” said Kroona.  “That is not true because we have the same numbers of cases in relation to our population.”

While Kroona points out that even if the rate of virus spread becomes more stable, a growing concern are reports that people who recovered are now becoming re-infected.

But even without the mandate, Kroona knows citizens will do the right thing – socially distance six feet, be careful around people you don’t live with, avoid large crowds or activities with many people, wash your hands and wear a mask.

“We are Iowa Nice.  It’s just another way to help people stay safe,” she said.

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