EASTON — The politicization of masks has left health experts defending their value in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the controversy, Talbot Health Officer Dr. Fredia Wadley weighed in to say, “Just don’t debate one thing: they work.”
“It’s proven,” Wadley said of masks’ contribution to stemming the spread of the deadly coronavirus. The health officer’s remarks on the issue came as she addressed the Talbot County Council during a Tuesday, July 21, meeting.
Wadley said she’s aware that some people are “violently opposed” to wearing a mask “because they feel it infringes upon their personal rights.”
“I can also tell you about the calls I get from people who wear a mask, and they’re feeling that people who refuse to wear a mask are infringing upon their rights, as well as their personal health and safety,” she said to the council.
Of masks’ efficacy, Wadley said, “Are they 100% effective? Nothing’s 100% effective” — but “we do know that masks can contain those large (respiratory) drops and can decrease the spread.”
Wadley’s and the council’s conversation about face coverings arose from her urging the county to establish a plan to more strictly enforce masking requirements among citizens and businesses as Talbot’s infection numbers continue to rise.
Council President Corey Pack suggested violators be fined for repeated non-compliance with the directive and said those who claim they are immune from wearing a mask because of a health issue should have to prove their exemption in court.
”If the compliance officer or the local deputy goes in and people are saying, ‘Oh, we don’t wear masks because I have asthma’ or ‘I have an upper respiratory illness,’ they still should be cited,” Pack said, adding, “They should have their day before a district court judge to show that those health issues are actually occurring.”
Council Member Laura Price, who was the only council member not wearing a mask during Tuesday’s meeting, rejected Pack’s assertion that people should have to verify their health issues.
”That’s violating their HIPAA laws,” Price said. “You can’t do that. You can’t ask someone to prove a health condition.”
In response to Price’s comment, Wadley leaned into the microphone she had been using to address the council to say, “That’s not HIPAA. That’s ADA, and that’s a myth.”
Price was referring to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which keeps certain details of patients’ medical information private. Wadley cited the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was established to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities.
According to a June 30 press release from the U.S. Department of Justice, the ADA “does not provide a blanket exemption to people with disabilities from complying with legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operations.”
While Wadley has acknowledged that “no one likes to wear a mask because they’re uncomfortable,” she has repeatedly said “the only things we have to fight this virus are social distancing, facial coverings and hand hygiene.”
The “wearers of masks,” the health officer said, “send a message that they care enough about the people around them to bear a little discomfort to decrease the spread of COVID-19.”
The council is expected to introduce a draft of an executive order that seeks to solidify the county’s masking and distancing enforcement plan during next week’s council meeting on Tuesday, July 28.