Who was that masked man?

If you remember that quote from “The Lone Ranger”, there’s a pretty fair chance that you’re over 60. If so, you’re in an age group that faces an increased risk of hospitalization and death from the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. In fact, 91% of recorded deaths from COVID-19 in Virginia were in people 60 and older. About 10% of people in their 70s known to be infected have died, and upwards of 20% of those over 80. Chances are that you hang around with people your own age, so not only are you at risk for a bad outcome from COVID-19, but if you catch it, you can also transmit it to other highly vulnerable people.

If you’ve never heard of “The Lone Ranger” at all, there’s an equally good chance that you’re under 40. In that case, your risk of dying from COVID-19 is extremely small: Virginia has counted only nine such deaths since the pandemic began, and none at all in people under 20. In fact, by Virginia figures, the chance of someone under 40 dying from their COVID-19 is less than 0.1%. Children and young adults still do catch the virus, but they typically have mild symptoms, and may not realize they have it. In other words, while young people rarely have bad outcomes from COVID-19, they are quite likely to be vectors, able to transmit the disease to older contacts, whether at home, at work, or just going about daily life.

One thing all people appear to have in common with COVID-19: it appears that they spread the virus before they have symptoms, which means just about anyone at any time could be expelling viruses into the air or onto surfaces. Remember that if we can stop the virus from moving from person to person, the pandemic will fade away. Our social distancing has slowed it down, but we can further limit the spread at its source — the mouth and nose of the person carrying it. The way to make it happen is to cover that mouth and nose with a mask or cloth face covering.

Cloth face masks (or surgical-type masks with ear loops) catch most of the moist droplets that contain viruses and other germs expelled when a person coughs, sneezes, sings, talks, or just exhales. Most of the droplets should stick to the fabric, so they don’t end up in the air to be inhaled by the next person, or on a surface to be touched. Viruses stuck to a mask can’t move to the next person, and if they can’t move to the next person, they die.

This system only works if everyone wears a mask when they’re around other people. It works even better if we maintain our 6-foot distance, so that practice should continue for now. But as society begins to re-open, and larger groups of people are allowed to gather, universal face mask wearing is a way to help us not lose the ground we’ve gained with our social distancing. Cloth face masks are easy to wear, they can be stylish with a bit of imagination, and unlike surgical and N95 masks, they can be washed in the laundry and re-used.

It’s time for everyone who can tolerate a face mask to wear one. Not when you’re alone in the woods, or in an office by yourself; not at home unless there is a high-risk person there; but every time you’re going to be around other people, please mask up. Mask up for your neighbor. Mask up for your co-worker. Mask up for the all the people in the valley.

We’ve made progress against this pandemic in these last two hard months. Let’s not lose it as we go back to work; rather, let’s build on what we’ve gained. Wearing your cloth mask is a way to help that happen.

Who is that masked man (or woman)? It should be you.

Dr. Colin M. Greene is a retired Army family physician who is the director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Lord Fairfax Health District, which serves residents of the City of Winchester and Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah, and Warren counties.