‘Things change as we learn more’: Here’s why you should wear a mask, according to a local doctor

MADISON, Wis. — What are the benefits of wearing a mask? Does it really work? Is Dane County’s mask mandate too late to make a difference? Why has guidance changed over the last few months?

News 3 Now This Morning talked to Dr. Jeff Pothof, chief quality officer at UW Health, to answer all your questions as Dane County’s mask mandate goes into effect Monday morning.

What do you think of the mask mandate?

Dr. Pothof: I think the mask mandate is a good idea. We tried to do this by asking people, telling people it’s really important to wear a mask, and despite that we still saw a surge in case numbers, so I think something a little harder like a mask mandate is a great idea for our community. I think we all want to see those virus numbers go down, and we know that wearing a mask is one of the ways that we can do that.

What is your response to people who say masks don’t work?

Dr. Pothof: I can understand the confusion. Early on in March, you can find clips of myself saying that if you’re sick, you should wear a mask, if you feel fine, you shouldn’t wear a mask. Coronavirus is interesting because we’ve been learning more about it as we go, and now we know that that guidance we gave in March was wrong, it wasn’t correct. We do know now with studies that there’s a lot of people who have coronavirus that don’t yet have symptoms, and 3 to 4 days before they start having any symptoms, they’re going to be passing that virus off to other people. It wasn’t enough to say that you had to feel unwell to wear a mask, because we knew that people felt fine and were still giving the virus.

The second thing that really changed our opinion on masks was that we learned you didn’t have to necessarily cough or sneeze to create those droplets; even just talking could create enough droplet to infect someone. So now we had a situation where you might feel fine, and just the mere act of talking could pass the virus to other people. That’s where the mask mandate came from.

[Another] reason we learned was we didn’t think people who were healthy really received much benefit from wearing a mask – that’s changed now, too. There are new studies that say the benefit is predominantly for those people who are going to get the disease and just don’t have symptoms yet, we also know that it also has a benefit for people who are completely healthy, and giving them a chance of not catching it from someone who has the disease and maybe isn’t masked near them.

Where do you get your information from and how do you relay that message?

Dr. Pothof: We use medical studies, so you can imagine there’s thousands of researchers all around the world who are trying to better understand coronavirus right now, and that’s where this information comes from. People do studies where they look at the virus, they have people who wear masks, people who don’t wear masks, and does the mask actually reduce transmission, and then they publish these studies so that the rest of the medical experts in the world can learn from them.

We actually take a pretty critical eye toward these studies, because we want to make sure we’re not giving advice that’s not true.

The preponderance of evidence now over the last several months has really shored up this idea that wearing a mask reduces transmission of the disease. This really is how science works, and it’s one of the ways you know science works is we sometimes change our opinion based on new information. We don’t just stick to something because we stuck to it in the first place. Things change as we learn more.