//Masks for Dummies pt. V

Masks for Dummies pt. V

By I. smiley G. Calderón | smileygcalderon@gmail.com

Been writing this column for five months now – but it’s needed now more than ever.

Blame it on human nature, I don’t know – but it’s safe to say we’ve become a bit tired of our new pathetic pandemic reality. Certain complacency has settled in a little, and for some, a little too much. I hear it all the time: “I don’t know anyone sick” or “My friend got the coronavirus, and it wasn’t that bad.” All excuses to let your guard down and pretend that COVID-19 is no longer a threat to you.

But nothing could be farther from the truth.

And no, I’m not trying to be a fearmonger – don’t accuse me of that. Instead, look at the facts as we know them: 33,279,488 total confirmed global coronavirus cases (undoubtedly more by the time you read this) and 1,000,825 deaths. And, as you already know, we’re leading the world with over 7 million cases here in the United States, with over 205,000 deaths.  

Stop to think about that number.

Stop and think about it. Over 205,000 Americans DEAD. Because of COVID. And all of these deaths were very unexpected for these poor pandemic victims. Just months ago, the coronavirus was only a foreign, distant threat. Massive death from a microbe seemed unlikely in the most advanced and modern country on the planet. But then, suddenly, like a raging Californian wildfire, it rapidly spread. In only a matter of months, it has already resulted in more American casualties than our wars. It’s been a horrific tragedy.

But, don’t you remember just a few months ago when it was almost unimaginable to think that we’d ever reach this awful benchmark number? It’s incredible. Did you really think it was even possible to get here back in March? I didn’t want to believe so. Still, the magnitude of death the coronavirus has wreaked upon us in such a short time is so piercing that it’s almost inconceivable. We’ve lost dear family and friends way too soon. Friends and family that would be alive today should be alive today – if it weren’t for COVID. It’s purely shocking.

Here in Fresno County alone, we’ve had over 28,000 total cases and 390 deaths. For months, our coronavirus risk level was considered ‘widespread’ by Sacramento – the worst of California’s four-level tier system. Our risk color code had been purple, tier one, for so long that I thought we were going to have to change the colors to our official county seal to match. For months, we consistently had more than seven new cases per 100,000 residents almost every day, with a weekly average positivity rate of over 8% of those tested. (and since Fresno County’s population is roughly 1 million, that means that we had seen more than 70 new cases every day). Thankfully, though, we have seen a recent slight decline in our positivity rates and daily new caseloads. So we have ‘graduated’ to the red tier, called the ‘substantial’ tier, the second-worst COVID community risk category. This means that we’ve had less than seven but more than four new positive cases per 100,000 or between 40-70 every day with a positivity rate between 5-8% – which is good news. Yet still, right now, there are scores of people hospitalized with COVID-19 fighting for their lives. So, yes, the threat is still real today as it has ever been no matter what popular opinion may say or suggest. 

Fresno county could be knocked back to purple like a black eye if our infection rates increase again.

Some fear that the worst is still yet to come. As the fall and winter months cause more people to spend more time inside around others, and as people increasingly grow weary of wearing masks and practicing social distancing, the coronavirus may become even more ‘efficient’ in exploiting our community weaknesses resulting in increased infections.

Which is why we just cannot drop our guard.

A local friend of mine, who’s been very COVID-careful since the beginning of the pandemic (practiced social distancing, hand sanitizing, and faithfully wearing his mask), told me the other day a family member who recently lived with him tested positive. And, unknowingly, he had just spent the day with him helping him gather his belongings to move. When my friend learned the news the next day by phone, he was crushed. At home, like all of us do, he let his guard down and didn’t mask-up or do any of the safety measures that he had been so carefully practicing outside the house. He didn’t know that his visiting ex-roommate was positive. No one knew yet. So, does this mean that he will now catch COVID and die? No – but his risk factor went up because he was exposed to it without protection. And, not surprisingly, so did his anxiety and stress with the fear that he would get sick – which in itself may weaken the immune system.

In reality, we can’t control external factors like our friends’ or family’s coronavirus risk factors or exposure – all we can do is our best to protect ourselves – which, when you really think about it, also protects everyone around us – for sure, wearing your mask around others is probably the most neighborly and considerate action you can take to help fight this pandemic right now. I know this can be incredibly difficult when we live with multiple people with different coronavirus protection practices and risk factors. Still, somehow we all have to get on the same page with the people we live with, to be careful not to introduce the virus at home where we are unprotected and vulnerable.

Yet, there’s good news for those who have been taking COVID seriously, especially for you mask-wearing dummies like me. Last month, researchers from the University of California at San Francisco suggested: “that an ordinary face mask could actually work a bit like a vaccine and give you immunity against the Covid-19 coronavirus.” That’s right, wearing your mask could impart some coronavirus immunity to you through a process called variolation.  Drs. Gandhi and Rutherford explain: “Variolation was a process whereby people who were susceptible to smallpox were inoculated with material taken from a vesicle of a person with smallpox, with the intent of causing a mild infection and subsequent immunity.” Hey, if it’s good enough for the smallpox virus – a vicious virus that humankind successfully eradicated in 1977 – it’s good enough for the coronavirus, I always say.

The idea is that, by wearing a mask, you are protecting yourself from the coronavirus – but not just in the obvious way of keeping the virus from passing into your nostrils or mouth. Since your mask may be letting the coronavirus pass through and infect you (depending on how efficient your mask is at keeping it out) – your infection would involve a much smaller viral load at much smaller capacity. It may then allow your immune system to develop protections against it. Sometimes this works, but it’s not as safe as vaccination. With variolation, sometimes those inoculated develop the full-blown disease. Still, most of the time, their immune systems produce protections against it. In the case of exposure while mask-wearing, then your mask would be, in a sense inoculating you with minimal viral load – big enough to trigger a successful immune response – but not too large to cause disease.

I bet you didn’t think your mask-wearing was protecting you in more ways than one.

Who would have thought that, by doing the socially considerate and ethical practice of wearing your mask in public, would also come a bonus of immunity?  

I love it.

So, until next time, my friends, keep on wearing your masks and keep on being alert and safe. Remember to vote (whether by mail, the ballot box, or in-person) – and not just for the sensational national or statewide contests – but also really take the time to truly understand what’s at stake at the district, city, and county level because each race this season is as crucial for the immediate future of our communities as is wearing that mask.  

Oh, so very crucial.