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Masks are new norm

Wearing protective masks in public has become the norm on Maui.

While out shopping you see all kinds of folks wearing all kinds of facial coverings. From plain surgical to bright homemade aloha prints, they run a gamut nearly as diverse as our island population.

While most businesses have signs requiring masks, we would like to think Mauians care enough about the health and safety of others, as well as their own, to wear them during these trying times anyway.

Not counting Halloween in Lahaina, this could be the first time most of us have worn a mask in public. The practice of wearing surgical masks in airport terminals or crowded city sidewalks is often associated with residents of Asia. There’s a reason for that. Not only is it far more common in places like China and Japan, the modern personal protective mask was pioneered in Asia.

A report by “99 percent Invisible” podcast host Roman Mars details how the Chinese-Malaysian doctor, Wu Lien-teh, promoted the use of cloth face masks during the Great Manchurian Plague of 1910. Deducing plague was spread by droplets in the air, Wu urged health care workers and the general population to wear masks. It worked.

Following the plague and outbreaks of other diseases, wearing masks became an accepted practice in Asia. Ill people don them to keep from infecting others, as do residents of cities with badly polluted air. No doubt, some wear them hoping to stave off germs.

Wu’s masks encountered pushback in the West and that dismissal continued for more than 100 years until the new coronavirus began sweeping the planet. Americans have been playing catch up the past few months, but it is never too late to learn an old trick, especially one that may save your life.

This spring, when it was feared the health care system would run out of personal protective equipment, we were told masks were not necessary. Now, they are not only recommended, they are mandatory in many venues.

Not all masks are created equal. While homemade masks can help stop the spread of infected droplets, most do not come close to offering the protection of N95 or surgical masks.

Loose-fitting masks leave gaps where disease can easily be breathed in or they slowly drop until the nose is uncovered. We’ve all seen folks push up their mask because it was falling off. If their hand had the coronavirus on it they just dosed themselves.

Masks are not a solution. They are one of the tools that make us safer, like washing hands and maintaining social distancing. For now, with the curve flattened, maybe it’s somewhat less troublesome to see store patrons and workers with their noses exposed or wearing loose bandannas. But it is still unsettling.

When new outbreaks or the dreaded “surge” hit Maui, the types of masks we wear and how we wear them is going to be very important.

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