There appear to be two distinct sides to the great mask debate: those who are stalwart in their belief that face masks do provide protection from COVID-19 transmission; and those who are equally steadfast in their belief that face masks are instead harmful to those who wear them, are simply political and infringe on personal freedoms.

Regardless of which side you’re on, leaders at three area health care systems are united in urging people to wear face masks to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. Plus as of Saturday, July 25, Minnesotans are required to wear masks in indoor businesses and public spaces per Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order.

“Masks make a difference. I think that’s the key message we want to convey,” Dr. Peter Henry, Essentia Health chief medical officer, said earlier this month in a virtual news conference titled “Masking in the Brainerd Lakes Area.”

He said recent scientific and clinical studies show that simple cloth face coverings, if worn broadly and used appropriately, have the potential to dramatically slow the spread and risk of COVID-19 and save thousands of lives.

Also participating in the online news conference were Dr. Rob Westin, chief medical officer at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby, and Dr. Adrianne Moen, family medicine provider at Lakewood Health System in Staples. The news conference was held to “discuss the important role face masks play in keeping our communities safe from COVID-19.”

“They have been proven to protect us and protect others,” Henry said of face masks. “And by wearing a mask you’re not making a political statement. You’re making a statement that says, ‘I care about others.’ Because that’s really what masks do. They protect people who are around you. If we all do our part by wearing masks - and by practicing social distancing whenever possible, constant hand washing - we can drastically lessen the threat of COVID-19 until the vaccine is available.”

And a vaccine is months away, Henry said, adding, “This public health crisis isn’t close to being over. We’re in it for the long haul so must remain diligent and take these precautionary steps like wearing masks.

“This issue shouldn’t divide us; it should unite us as a common cause to protect each other,” he said.

Westin and Moen agreed with Henry, noting that wearing a face mask isn’t fun, easy or a cure-all, but it’s practical. This is a serious issue; it’s not a government takeover and it’s not a political issue, they said.

Westin said wearing a face mask is simple, and science unequivocally supports the effectiveness of masks in protecting against COVID-19. It’s become a distraction to say wearing a face mask is anything more than a common sense way to protect your neighbor, yourself and your family from a type of infection the world hasn’t seen before, he said.

“It’s not rocket science. We’re really doing it for the simple matter that it works,” Westin said. “I encourage everybody to carry that very simple message beyond hearing it from us.”

Studies show any kind of face covering to reduce droplets leaving the wearer’s mouth is what reduces transmission, he said. He cited a European study where masks were implemented community by community, and a 40% to 50% decrease in the risk of infection and risk of spread - and therefore risk of death - were seen from the simple act of wearing a face mask.

Henry cited a Wall Street Journal report that said Hong Kong, with a population close to that of New York City, had just six COVID-19-related deaths at the time, compared to nearly 20,000 such deaths in New York City. Hong Kong had about a 97% compliance rate of using face masks during rush hour, he said.

Henry said the University of Washington said 95% compliance with wearing masks could result in at least a 50% decline in COVID-19 transmission, and some studies he’s read cite as high as an 80% decrease in transmission.

The Mathematical Biosciences scientific journal says high use of masks in public could eradicate COVID-19, Henry said.

“That’s because if you don’t give the virus a way to transmit itself to another human being, it will die. It has to have a place to live,” he said.

The Minnesota Department of Health reports almost 8,000 COVID-19 cases statewide have no known source of infection because nearly half of people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, he said, noting 34% to 41% of people who have the coronavirus don’t know it.

“Which underscores the importance of wearing a mask, especially when you’re in public and in close proximity to others, because you don’t know who does and who does not have COVID-19,” Henry said, adding this is a significantly different virus than seasonal influenza.

In a typical year, the World Health Organization estimates about 1 billion people worldwide will have the flu and about 290,000 to 650,000 of those people will die. That’s less than 1 out of 1,000 who contract influenza who will die, he said.

With COVID-19, of the more than 13 million people worldwide who tested positive, 573,000 have died. That’s about a 4% risk of death, or 2 out of 50, Henry said.

He urged people to be smart, saying this is no time to get lax in the simple precautions to guard against COVID-19.

Moen reiterated the sentiment that wearing a face mask isn’t necessarily about you or your beliefs or anyone else.

“It's really about protecting those that you love and care about and come in contact with from you,” she said. “Source masking has been shown time and time again in many, many studies that continue to come out that we can reduce the risk of transmission if we are all doing our part.”

Henry cited a secondary advantage to wearing face masks. As the season of influenza and seasonal colds and viruses approaches, he said a significant drop in those transmissions should be seen, calling it an added social benefit for people to use masks.

Westin said it could be a real challenge to decipher what’s COVID-19 and what’s influenza or a regular cold virus.

“The more we can do to quell any of these, the better for health care systems,” he said.

He shared an analogy he said clicks for him. People are aware of and accepting of fire bans in the early summer when grasses are dry. They don’t burn brush piles because they don’t want to potentially spark a fire that could burn their house down or wipe out a whole town.

“This is the same thing. We’re basically dry grass waiting to be burned by this coronavirus,” Westin said. “And if we don’t protect that spark or that initial fire that’s going to start somewhere, potentially we could be the one that ultimately hurts our own family or hurts our community.

“This is something we don’t have any other great ways to treat right now,” he said of COVID-19. “The only way we can prevent it is to prevent that fire from starting. That’s really what we need to do.”

The Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce said businesses are not required to refuse service to customers who don’t wear masks but only to make a “reasonable effort” to ensure compliance. Those who don’t comply risk a petty misdemeanor fine of $100 per individual or $1,000 per business. Local police and the Minnesota Departments of Labor and Health will be responsible for enforcement, the chamber said.

Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.