What do masks do?

Local health officials talk about mask mandates as students prepare to head back to school.



August 7, 2020 - 3:41 PM

Students will be heading back to school soon, with mask mandates in place. 

The CDC earlier this month urged every American to wear a mask, citing studies and data that show face masks reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Allen County also requires masks, following recommendations from local and state health officials, though some residents object to being forced to wear one. Those who are opposed to masks say they don’t believe the threat of COVID-19 is serious enough to warrant drastic action, or they worry that a face mask would restrict oxygen levels.

Those fears are unfounded, local health experts say. Wearing a mask provides at least some protection against COVID-19 and other types of illnesses. Doctors, surgeons and others have long worn face masks without negative consequences. Masks for years have been recommended to protect against seasonal allergies. In other countries, such as those in Asia, residents typically wear a mask when they are sick to prevent infecting others. 

 “The rest of the world has shown how effective wearing a mask can be,” Dr. Brian Neely, with Allen County Regional Hospital’s clinic in Iola, said. 

“We all have to work together and the biggest thing we can do is wear masks.”

Polly Barker, infection control director for ACHR, said wearing masks and washing hands are the most effective ways to prevent the spread of the virus, as well as other types of illnesses.

“The two go hand-in-hand. You have to keep your hands clean to keep everything else clean,” she said.

Much remains unknown about COVID-19, but it seems to be most contagious before those who are infected show any symptoms. Many of those who have it are asymptomatic but can still spread the disease. 

“What’s frustrating about COVID is how variable the symptoms are,” Neely said. “Not all diseases are like that. If you don’t see the seriousness of it, then it can be difficult to appreciate how bad it can get.”

Wearing a mask can slow the spread, not only to prevent yourself and others from getting sick but also to lower the chances that hospitals and healthcare systems would be overwhelmed. 

In the early days of the disease, hospitals were overwhelmed in places like New York and Italy. That has slowed, but the disease continues to spike in other places, particularly in rural areas. 

“Back in March in New York, things got out of control extremely quickly,” Neely said. “I don’t want that to happen here. We have the power to prevent it.”

Southeast Kansas has reported increasing cases in the past month or so. Kansas overall reported a 93% increase in positive coronavirus cases in July. The state reached 30,638 cases Friday with 380 deaths.

Allen County so far has reported 16 positive cases, which is among the lowest in the region. 

Barker and Neely said they aren’t sure if the low number of cases can be attributed to Allen County’s mask mandate, the efforts of residents to comply with recommendations, or if the county is simply lucky.

Dr. Lee Norman, the state health department’s top administrator, said Wednesday that statewide the numbers of new cases is favorable, but that the reduction of new cases is entirely in the counties that require masks to be worn in public spaces.

Neely said he believes a combination of factors have helped keep Allen County’s infection rate low. All of the healthcare clinics in the county and ACRH have implemented safety protocols that keep potentially infected patients away from others. Tests conducted through the Saint Luke’s Health System have been returning within 48 hours, which helps to quickly identify those who are infected and isolate them before they can spread the disease to others.

“Being in a small town makes it a little bit easier,” Neely said. “If someone calls and says ‘I have these symptoms,’ we can get you in here quick and get you tested.”

Neely said he also tries to educate those who are concerned about wearing masks or those who do not believe COVID-19 is a serious health threat.

With so many unknowns about the virus and so many sources of information and misinformation, it can be difficult to know who to believe and trust.

It’s not true that masks lower your oxygen levels, he said. 

The only downside to wearing a mask is that it’s uncomfortable, he said. 

“There’s no risk to your health from wearing a mask,” Neely said. “I’m not going to lie. It’s not my favorite thing to do all day either. It’s necessary.”

Any mask is better than no mask, he said. Cloth masks, disposable masks, “gators” that cover the neck and lower face, surgical masks, N95 masks all work to keep respiratory droplets from spreading, though some may be more effective than others.

“There are so many styles of masks out there, you can find one that works for you,” Neely said.

WITH STUDENTS and staff returning to school within the next couple of weeks, Mary Mathew is preparing to help students adjust to the new health restrictions. 

She works for Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas as the school nurse for Iola middle and high schools. 

When school begins, students will undergo temperature checks every morning. They’ll be asked to wash their hands frequently and use hand sanitizer at stations set up throughout the school and in each classroom.

They’ll also be asked to wear a mask. 

It can be uncomfortable to wear a mask, Mathew said. But like anything, you get used to it.

For children, the key to mask wearing is for adults to set a good example. They also are more likely to wear a mask if a parent explains the importance of stopping germs and being healthy.

“If you approach it in a fun way, it’s not going to be bad,” she said. 

Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City offers a section on its website to help children wear a mask. Suggestions include putting a mask on a favorite stuffed animal, decorating a mask with stickers, tie-dying a mask or making your own, talking about the importance of wearing a mask, finding a safe place to take breaks if the child is uncomfortable, and leading by example by wearing one yourself. 

School officials said they plan to spend the first week or so teaching students how to adapt to the new safety precautions.

Kids adapt pretty well, Mathew said, and she’s confident they will learn new techniques to improve their health and hygiene for years to come.

“I’m excited to get started but I come in cautiously,” she said. “It’s going to be a learning year. That’s what we’re in the middle of right now, just teaching people the benefits and showing that it does make a difference.”

Link to children’s mercy site for web:




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