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Doctor: Maui could ‘aim higher’ for mask usage

Study is showing Maui’s mask usage at 72 percent and Oahu at 88 percent

Maui island’s latest mask usage rate stands at 72 percent, still behind the target rate of more than 80 percent, according to a study that is using volunteers to observe people wearing masks throughout the state.

“The aim of the project is to track face mask wearing behaviors in public spaces. We know that wearing a mask is effective at stopping the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Gary Glauberman, the lead on the mask wearing study and program director of University of Hawaii School of Nursing and Dental Hygiene’s Advance Population Health Nursing master’s program. “Experts have identified ‘observed mask wearing’ as a key indicator for effective COVID-19 response.”

The latest data from the Hawaii Department of Health Face Mask Observation project show that mask wearing is at 88 percent on Oahu, followed by 74 percent on Kauai and 72 percent both on Hawaii island and Maui. Glauberman said he has not yet had volunteers from Molokai or Lanai so there are no numbers from those islands.

“A suggested target recommended by experts is that greater than 80 percent of the general population wear masks while in public spaces,” said Glauberman, who noted that the rates of mask wearing across the state fluctuate every week. “It’s hoped that by better understanding mask-wearing behaviors in our state, we can track patterns of usage more easily in response to different types of conditions occurring in the community, such as new rules or laws or changes in the rates of disease.” 

In response to the 72 percent rate for Maui, Dr. Michael Shea, chief medical director and emergency operations center co-lead for Maui Health System, said that the community needs “to aim higher” in wearing a mask “if we want to keep our numbers down as tourists return.”

“I know we can do this, as we have done before,” he said. Maui Health operates Maui Memorial Medical Center, Kula Hospital and Lanai Community Hospital.

He added that it is interesting, but not surprising, that mask wearing data track with the rate of COVID-19 in a given community.

“If you are hearing on the news that there is a high number of COVID cases in your area, you are more likely to be cautious and wear your mask more frequently,” Shea said, referencing the higher mask rate usage on Oahu, which has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in the state.

“Unfortunately, the same appears true in the other direction — the lower the incidence of COVID-19 in your community, the less anxious people may feel, and therefore, relax a bit and not be as careful with wearing a mask,” Shea added. 

(Shea was commenting on a different set of statistics that he was provided. That data showed Oahu to be at the forefront of mask wearing, followed by Hawaii island, Maui and Kauai. Coincidentally, those mask wearing percentages corresponded to the COVID-19 levels on each island, with Oahu having the highest number of cases and highest percentage of mask wearing and Kauai with the least amount of cases and lowest rate of mask wearing).

Shea urged everyone to be vigilant and to wear a mask when leaving their home and especially if around those who are not part of their immediate household. 

“Even if you are outside and you are going to be close to others, keep your mask on,” he said. 

The mask wearing study began with first observations Sept. 5 and has continued every week since then. Once a week, the volunteers gather the observation data from Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island using a smartphone app developed by the UH Applied Research Laboratory, Glauberman said. 

Then data are submitted to the state Department of Health where weekly reports are generated as a community prevention metric for the state’s COVID-19 data dashboard. It can be found at hawaiicovid19.com/dashboard/

On Maui, there are nine volunteers collecting data. All of them are affiliated with UH-Manoa or UH-Maui College nursing programs.

Glauberman said they are developing new partnerships with community groups, such as the Rotary Club of Maui, to increase capacity of the project on island. 

“Hopefully, with greater awareness of the rates of mask wearing across the state, people in Hawaii will adopt mask wearing at greater rates, so much so that it will be a regular social norm in all parts of the islands,” Glauberman added.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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