Today, it's time for Nevadans to make like Halloween and put on their masks.
Gov. Steve Sisolak announced on Wednesday afternoon that wearing face coverings will be mandatory in public for residents and visitors alike, barring a few exceptions, such as for children and diners in restaurants who are maintaining proper social distancing from other tables.
Brian Labus, assistant professor of public health and member of Sisolak's coronavirus task force said the measure became necessary after seeing cases rise in the state. As of Thursday, the seven-day moving average for test positivity rate in Nevada stood at 11.9 percent, a considerable uptick from the 4 percent rate on June 15.
Public compliance with official recommendations for citizens to wear face coverings has been poor, Labus said. "Despite repeated requests, the governor had to go to a mandate because people just weren't wearing masks.This is something [public health officials have] been in favor of for quite some time, but it's not just a simple public health decision. We can say that this makes the most sense but the practical considerations are about how do you actually implement it, who's going to enforce it and all that. The public health decision was easy. The rest of the decision the governor had to make, wasn't."
Whether it's in larger gatherings in casinos or at protests, or smaller neighborhood gatherings — or something as anodyne as a trip to the grocery store — the common denominator in transmission of the coronavirus is interactions with other people. The more people circulate, the more the virus does as well.
When you put your mask on, it's important to make sure you're doing it right. Otherwise, improper use can undermine the whole effort. Two important things to keep in mind, according to Labus:
- Keep it fully covered: "The whole point of the mask is to keep your breath to yourself. If you're wearing it under your chin or under your nose, it's not doing its job. It needs to be over your nose and your mouth, and it needs to form a tight seal so air is not leaking around the sides."
- Avoid masks with valves: "When you inhale, the mask catches all the dust and when you exhale, the flap opens up and lets your breath out. Which is fine if you're just trying to protect yourself. We're wearing the mask to keep your breath from getting to other people."
Labus notes that cases are spreading rapidly in prime tourism feeder markets like Arizona and California — Los Angeles in particular. That can create serious problems for Las Vegas.
"Those big outbreaks pose a direct threat to Nevada," he said. "You can't just accept one part of the population, especially if that population is having a worse disease experience than we are.
We live in a tourist destination and you have to decide if you're going to leave tourism open, how do you do it safely? We have challenges a lot of places don't, but that's what makes Nevada unique."
The numbers we're seeing rising now, Labus said, reflect people starting to spend more time out of the home since the start of Nevada's Phase 2 reopening that started on May 29. He expects a continued rise over the next two weeks before the corrective impact of mandatory mask usage will be seen.
The challenge, then, is to keep people focused on the need for vigilance in their daily lives to help curb the spread.
"Most epidemics end rather quickly, but for something like this, it's kind of all unknown,” he said.
The HIV crisis offers one corollary. “Over the years, those safe-sex messages started to get lost on a lot of people,” he said. “They weren't taking the same precautions they were previously.
“It's the same sort of thing here. We have to think about how we are going to continue to maintain these behaviors as people get fatigued in doing it."
On campus, face covering use will be mandatory, and the university is planning to have a supply of disposable face coverings available in the event that anyone shows up empty handed — or faced, in this case. But Labus said students, faculty, and staff should treat the coverings like a necessary personal item and always have one or more available to them.
The third summer session starting July 13 will see most classes still taught remotely, but a small number will be in person. And the university will continue to assess data as it plans for the fall semester. Currently, the university expects about a 50-50 mix between in-person and remote classes for the fall semester.
But the point of steps like the statewide face covering mandate, Labus said, is to help prevent a worsening outbreak that would require returning to more strict measures in place at the campus, city, or state level.
"Every time somebody wears a mask, that is an opportunity to stop disease transmission," Labus said. "So the more people that do it, the better off we're going to be. The whole point of doing all these things now is so you keep [officials] from even having to make those kinds of decisions."