I can’t prove it. It’s mostly speculative on my part. But my homemade cotton mask may have saved my life, or at least saved me from getting sick.
Maybe it saved you, too, nice lady who boarded my city bus and sat by me, unmasked, the day before I learned that I had tested positive for COVID-19.
That was in late August. I had felt fine, but I took part in one of the large testing events at UND because the students were coming back and I wanted reassurance that I was OK to welcome them into my classroom.
I had been careful. I had practiced social distancing, frequent hand-washing and trying not to touch my face. And I had regularly worn a mask when I was with people, starting with a hapless flap I “made” last spring from an old shirt, then adopting a more stylish and effective accessory made for me by a friend who knew my original was laughable. Later, the university outfitted me with a couple of good masks, and a dear distant friend – probably also appalled by my own effort – sent me six. Several of those feature owls. She knew I’d wear those.
“Your test did come back positive,” the nice public health nurse told me, gently but definitively, the day after I tested. As she went through the protocols that would govern me for the next 10 days – which meant twice-daily temperature checks and isolation from friends, family and students – my mind turned over all the dark warnings I had heard or read about this foul virus.
I am older than 65. I have underlying conditions that are said to make me especially vulnerable to COVID-19. I’ve had bad cases of the flu over the years, and I know how depressing and will-shattering the flu can be. COVID-19 can be worse, they say.
But over the next 10 days, I showed no symptoms. None. My temperature, recorded twice daily, never deviated from normal. Yes, I was frequently bored. I missed seeing people, especially granddaughter Emma. And I was a bit embarrassed to look at the numbers on UND’s COVID dashboard, knowing that the number “1” under the heading self-reported infected faculty was … me.
But I wasn’t sick. I didn’t have to go to the hospital. I didn’t need a ventilator. I didn’t die.
Could it have been a false positive? Highly unlikely, the public health nurse had said. This particular test, the jab through a nostril that feels like it’s headed into the brain, definitely showed that I was harboring the virus DNA.
It’s possible, she said, that I had received just a slight hit of the virus.
The mask? Did it allow a trace of the virus through, enough to register on the test, but limit the dosage enough that it didn’t fell me?
Again, I don’t know. But that explanation is probably better than my other theory – that I have eaten enough lutefisk over the years to build a unique immunity.
I know there is disagreement over the effectiveness of masks. They are no better at stopping the virus, a fellow in Bismarck told a reporter this week, than “stopping sand with chicken wire.” He had read that, I’m sure, on the internet.
I don’t think anyone has claimed that masks are perfect, 100% guaranteed to stop the spread, especially the tiny “aerosol” droplets. I’ve read long, detailed, ostensibly science-backed arguments on both sides of the issue, following links to sources if provided, and I am persuaded that masks help slow the spread.
I am not in the least persuaded, as some of our citizens apparently are, that masks are central to a diabolical plot to reduce human population by billions and allow some evil entity to control the world.
I understand the objection to mask mandates as government overreach. I understand it and acknowledge the sincerity of most people who see it as an abridgment of their freedom, but I just as sincerely disagree. Individualism, personal responsibility, a healthy skepticism regarding authority – all are parts of who we are as Americans. But so is community. So is empathy for others.
It took a while, but on Monday the Grand Forks City Council voted 7-0 to implement a mask mandate, requiring the wearing of masks in public spaces. The decision came after an hourlong discussion and comments from the public, including objections that masks are ineffective. The unanimity in that vote – and the mayor’s acceptance of it – was welcome and refreshing, though enforcement was left vague.
Devils Lake also has adopted a mandate, fearing that a rising number of cases there could trigger a local shutdown and great economic hardship. “That’s what really we’re trying to prevent,” Mayor Richard ‘Dick’ Johnson said, the Herald reported. “We know that’d be devastating for our community.”
The Grand Forks measure replaces a policy of appealing to citizens’ personal responsibility, a noble sentiment but not as effective a response as we’ve needed. The mask requirement will be lifted if the county’s coronavirus dashboard status is lowered to yellow, indicating a slowed infection rate. It is now red, reflecting widespread infection. We want the rate to slow, of course, but I hope we aren’t in too great a rush to relax if it does.
Wear a mask. And get a flu shot.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at email@example.com.