Post #721: This is what convinces people that masks work?

Posted on June 18, 2020

For this one, let me just get the facts down first, then provide the commentary.  For me, this was a great lesson in what works and what doesn’t.  Not in terms of fighting the spread of COVID-19.  In terms of convincing people to do the right things to prevent the spread.

Recall that, a couple of weeks back, there was a hairdresser in East Ripshinthicket, Arkansas who worked in some mom-and-pop hair salon.  She went to work for more than a week after she had begun to feel sick with the symptoms of COVID-19.  During which time, she gave COVID-19 to her coworker.  And then the two of them, together, exposed maybe 140 customers to COVID-19 before, somehow, somebody caught wind of it and put a stop to it.  (Reference, reference 2, Reference 3).

OK, I am mocking them.  This really wasn’t some hick town in the middle of nowhere.  It was Springfield, MO, a metropolitan area with a population roughly 160,000.  These were not some uneducated hicks, they were trained employees of a national chain of hair salons that has $1B in annual revenues.   Per above, you could have gone to one of their salons.

The local authorities were a bit miffed.  They just might have an outbreak on their hands.  So they sat back, put their feet up, and waited to see what would happen.  Only time would tell, because, after all, at that point, (pick one):

  1. the train had left the station
  2. the cat was out of the bag
  3. the genie was out of the bottle
  4. that ship had sailed
  5. what’s done is done
  6. that’s water over the dam and/or under the bridge.

Again, untrue.  The local health authorities both advertised the time and place of possible exposure, and went about tracing all contacts using a list derived from the on-line appointment scheduling software used by the firm.  The offered COVID-19 tests to all exposed individuals, but far less than half of those who were exposed agreed to be tested.  And, of course, because of the lack of cooperation from the public, it really did boil down to “only time will tell”.  They had to wait 14 days to see if any cases emerged from the half of the exposed population that had refused to be tested.  (Though, given zero cases within the tested half, they probably had a pretty good guess that no cases would be found, period.)

But nothing happened.  None of those 140 customers got infected.  So they chalked that up to the right-thinking nature of the population, to their natural toughness, and to the goodness of God.

No, actually, they chalked that up to masks.  Both of the infected hairdressers wore masks, as did all of their customers.  Not because they wanted to.  Seems that in that neck of the woods, mask-wearing was frowned up as some sort of evil and unnecessary liberal anti-freedom plot.  No, they wore masks because that’s the law.  Springfield requires them, in that setting, by local ordinance.  (I’d have thought that would be a state-wide ordinance, but as I read it, the state there has guidelines to encourage some things, but that’s about the extent of it.)

So far, so good.  A potentially large cluster of new infections was avoided by adherence to a simple mask protocol:  Both the hairdressers and the customers had to wear masks.

Here’s where it runs off the rails, for me.  If you read this blog, you know I was an early and vehement proponent of mandatory mask use in public.  And I was convinced of that by careful study of the evidence.  That included both observational studies of mask wearers (versus others), contrast of countries that were successful and unsuccessful in containing COVID-19, and the basic physics of transmission of the disease.  And it didn’t hurt that the head of the Chinese CDC just came right out and said that lack of masks was “The big mistake” that both the US and Europe were making.

Now read what the local health authority had to say.  All in all, the local health department did all the right things.  They required masks for personal care services.  They offered testing.  They carefully traced contacts.  They were more stringent, by far, than the State of Missouri, and they took some heat for that.  But, to me, this is what makes me think (incorrectly!) of these folks as a bunch of yokels.

"Clay Goddard wasn’t religious about wearing a face mask in public, despite being the director of the health department in Springfield, Mo., and the head of the region’s response to the novel coronavirus. He doubted a face covering — even his favorite Kansas City Chiefs-pattern mask — offered much protection.
“You’d probably have better luck stopping the wind,” Goddard said.
 ... Goddard has gone from “an early skeptic” on face masks to a believer."

The local public health director — surely a person of some learning and experience — wasn’t convinced to use a mask, personally, by any of the available evidence.  Not systematic studies, not the CDC guidance, not nothing.  The only thing that convinced him to wear a mask was this one episode.  It was having this case show up, in his back yard.  Then, and only then, did he change his mind about wearing a mask.

So I take a lesson from that.  For many people, probably for most people, a single good human-interest anecdote may outweigh all the scientific evidence in the world.  Usually, that’s a bad thing.  It makes people believe fervently in things that just ain’t so.

But in this case, maybe it’s a good thing.  And I’m glad it got reported out.  All too often, if there isn’t a disaster, then it’s not news.  And you never hear about it again, like all the Cheeseheads that didn’t get infected after the abrupt removal of social distancing restrictions in Wisconsin (Post #709).

So I hope Clay Goddard goes on to proselytize.  I hope he travels across his state, talking about his conversion.  Talking to people whose current mindset matches the way he thought about this a month ago.  It’s great that he has become convinced that masks are useful in stopping spread of COVID-19.  I hope he can leverage that conversion, and convert a bunch of non-believers.  Barring that, I hope that this Springfield, Missouri story — what amounts to an anecdote — can convince people that wearings masks is something that we all need to do.