Infectious disease expert admits some early messaging on mask wearing missed the mark


(WIVB) — A year ago we began thinking quarantine and the pandemic would only last a few weeks or months at the most.

In the past year our lives have changed in unbelievable ways.

We sat down with infectious disease expert Dr. Thomas Russo with a look at the light at the end of the tunnel.

To say the past 12 months have been extraordinary is an understatement.

“We’ve learned a lot about this virus. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves,” Russo said.

Throughout the year of COVID, Dr. Thomas Russo has been among the public faces of infectious disease education.

The rock-steady physician and researcher from UB’s Jacobs School of Medicine admits that some of the early messaging on masks missed the mark.

“The early messaging of please reserve masks for healthcare workers I think was quickly misconstrued as the general public doesn’t have to wear masks. And it took a while for that misconception to be corrected. And I feel that was one of the greatest mistakes that we actually made in this pandemic,” Russo said.

He says the learning curve even included virus transmission from person-to-person.

“What really caught us off guard and it took us a while to learn is that people could be infectious and spread it to others without symptoms. That has really been the ticket for this virus to be so successful in rapidly spreading across the globe.”

And who can forget those days of empty store shelves as people cleaned out disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizers.

Luke: People were wiping down everything, right? Door handles . Any knobs in the house. Countertops, things like that. What about that?

Dr. Russo: What that turned out to be is a little bit of a waste of time and some resources. But fortunately, it didn’t result in an increased number of infections and bad outcomes. I think as this pandemic evolved and unwound, I think we learned that probably acquiring an infection from touching something and then touching your eyes, nose, and mouth is a theoretical concern but really accounts for a trivial number of cases with this particular virus.

Luke: If you had to explain this to someone who’s never heard of COVID-19 and say, ok, this is how you can get it. What would you say to them? This is how it spreads.

Dr. Russo: Today, we know that it spreads most readily indoors. People interacting in close quarters without masks. Usually less than six feet but there’s nothing magical about six feet, Luke. We’ve talked about that lots of times as well. And that distance actually can be much greater particularly in poorly ventilated indoor settings.

Dr. Russo thinks we’ll be in a much better place around May and June, thanks to warmer weather and a ramped-up vaccine program.

But what about those masks we’re still wearing? As fun and stylish as they’ve become, will there be a day when they’re no longer needed?

“When we get to the point where the community burden of disease is zero or close to zero. Very low. And we get critical numbers of people vaccinated. That’s when we can get rid of those masks,” Russo said.

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