PARKERSBURG — A number of public health agencies are recommending masks, even for fully vaccinated individuals, in certain circumstances to protect against the spread of COVID-19 and the more contagious delta variant.
But unless an entity requires their use, it comes down to a personal choice, said Dr. Clay Marsh, West Virginia’s coronavirus czar.
“We can offer a lot of guidance, but I think people are getting confused by all the different data,” said Marsh, a regular presence on Gov. Jim Justice’s COVID-19 briefings over the past year-plus. “Every day, we’re all navigating our own lives in a way that makes sense to us.”
The most recent guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people should wear a mask indoors in public if in “an area of substantial or high transmission.” That follows an outbreak in Provincetown, Mass., where 469 people tested positive for COVID-19, 374 of whom were fully vaccinated, Marsh said.
“I think the main important probably takeaway from that is that this delta variant … exists in a way that allows it to spread much more easily from person to person,” he said.
Research indicates the variant could spread as easily as chicken pox, infecting someone who breathes contaminated air with no other form of contact, Marsh said. And while vaccines protect against severe complications from the virus — only five of those initial 374 people with breakthrough infections were hospitalized — vaccinated people can still spread it.
“COVID is growing very quickly. This delta variant is extremely infectious,” Marsh said.
Wearing a mask reduces the concentration of the virus in droplets released when a person coughs, sneezes, yells or speaks loudly, Marsh said. The concentration of the virus inhaled determines the likelihood of infection and extent of the illness.
If a person is around individuals they know, not wearing a mask is reasonable, Marsh said. But if they’re going to be in a crowd of folks whose health and vaccination status they don’t know, in a high-risk area like a gym or night club, “I think it’s reasonable to consider wearing a mask,” he said.
That’s what Dr. Charles Whitaker III, medical officer for the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, recommends.
“Masks work,” he said. “Wear them when you’re in an uncontrolled situation … where you don’t have control of who you’re close to,” such as at a grocery or big box store.
The CDC’s recommendation emphasizes mask use in areas of “high or substantial spread,” based on the agency’s COVID Data Tracker at covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#county-view. It’s a color-coded, county-by-county map, similar to West Virginia’s county alert system (at www.coronaviruswv.gov) but with different colors and designations.
Whitaker said that when looking at a map or other presentation of COVID-19 data, it’s improtant to understand what’s being measured and how.
Both maps are based on the number of new cases per 100,000 people and the percentage of tests that come back positive in a particular period of time. For West Virginia, the time period is seven days for counties with populations of more than 16,000 and 14 days for those with less. The CDC map uses seven days.
West Virginia assigns those values to a five-color spectrum of green (the lowest), yellow, gold, orange or red (the highest). The lower of the two metrics determines the color for the county.
The federal map has four color categories: blue for low transmission, yellow for moderate, orange for substantial and red for high. A county’s color is determined by the higher of the two metrics.
The maps appear to use similar data, though how they categorize them is different. For example, the green category for the state is based on three or fewer new cases per 100,000 people and less than 3 percent of tests being positive. The CDC’s lowest level, blue, is based on less than 10 cases per 100,000 and test positivity less than 5 percent.
For the last week, Wood County has been in the substantial transmission category on the CDC map, while climbing from yellow on the state map to orange as of Friday.
When it comes to deciding whether to wear a mask, Whitaker said people should consider if it makes more sense to take precautions before virus cases begin to climb or after.
“You don’t wait until you see the red lights flash in front of you to put a seat belt on,” he said.
Marsh emphasized that full vaccination remains the most effective protection against the coronavirus, but adding a mask provides an additional safeguard.
Evan Bevins can be reached at [email protected]
West Virginia County Alert System Map
* Green — 3 and fewer new cases per 100,000
* Yellow — 3.1 to 9.9 cases per 100,000
* Gold — 10 to 14.9 cases per 100,000
* Orange — 15 to 24.9 cases per 100,000
* Red — 25-plus cases per 100,000
* Infection Rate Cases Excluded: cases residing in nursing homes, state or federal prisons and university/college isolation dorms are excluded.
Percent Positivity (confirmatory lab tests) – NAATs
* Green — 8 percent
* Percent Positivity Rate Cases Excluded: cases residing in nursing homes, state or federal prisons and university/college isolation dorms are excluded.
CDC’s COVID Data Tracker site (covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#county-view)
* Blue (Low Transmission): Control is achieved largely through individual prevention behaviors and the public health response to identify and isolate cases or clusters. Counties with fewer than 10 cumulative cases per 100,000 population in the past seven days and a cumulative NAAT percent test positivity result below 5 percent in the past seven days.
* Yellow (Moderate Transmission): Adherence to individual and selected community level prevention strategies are needed. Threshold: Counties with 10-49 cumulative cases per 100,000 population or a cumulative NAAT test positivity result between 5.0-7.9 percent in the past 7 days.
* Orange (Substantial Transmission): Everyday activities should be limited to reduce spread and protect the health care system. Threshold: Counties with 50-99 cumulative cases per 100,000 population or a cumulative NAAT test positivity result between 8.0-9.9 percent in the past 7 days.
* Red (High Transmission): Significant measures are needed to limit contact between persons, with priority given to maintaining essential community activities and services (e.g., health care, transportation, food and agriculture, schools). Threshold: Counties with cumulative cases = 100 per 100,000 population or a cumulative NAAT test positivity result = 10.0 percent in the past 7 days.