As Ladapo’s refusal sparks furor, expert says it’s good to mask up around those at high COVID risk

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Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo drew criticism over the last few days for refusing to wear a mask in the office of state Sen. Tina Polsky, who has breast cancer.

According to a report originally from Florida Politics, Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said catching COVID-19 would force her to delay radiation therapy treatment, so she told Ladapo she had a “serious medical condition” — but Ladapo, Florida’s top health official, still refused to don his mask.

Aside from the potential political fallout, the incident raises an important question: Is it unreasonable for certain people to ask others to wear masks?

Dr. Jarod Fox, an infectious disease physician with Orlando Health Medical Group, says it isn’t.

“If you know you’re going to be around someone that’s indoors, and you know that they have some sort of underlying medical condition, then it is reasonable to continue wearing a mask, even if you’re vaccinated,” Fox said.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in April 2020 that more than four in 10 adults in Florida were at risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19. This analysis did not include cancer patients.

People are generally at increased risk from COVID-19 if they have conditions that make them immunocompromised or conditions that make COVID-19 more likely to be severe.

Immunocompromised people have weak immune systems. They often don’t have the same response as healthy people to the vaccine and struggle to keep the infection from getting worse once they do get sick, Fox said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes people who are being actively treated for cancerous tumors in this category.

Many people whose immune systems work fine are at risk too, and likely benefit when those around them are vaccinated and wear masks, Fox said. People should keep taking special precautions if they have health conditions like severe lung disease that make COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses especially dangerous.

“Even before COVID, I would tell my immunocompromised patients to wear a mask in a crowd of people or in close proximity inside,” Fox said.

The CDC recommends unvaccinated people wear a mask indoors and recommends high-risk people and family members of high-risk people consider wearing a mask as well. When comparing the dangers of COVID-19 to the dangers of masks, it’s a no-brainer to help out friends, family and colleagues at risk by masking up, Fox said.

“Hospital employees have been wearing masks for years. Surgeons wear masks on a daily basis. If there was any sort of ill effect from wearing a mask we would have found it by now,” he said.

Ladapo has questioned whether masks and the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine work, despite broad consensus in the medical community that both are important tools to fight the virus.

After Polsky asked him to leave her office, he reportedly said, “Sometimes I try to reason with unreasonable people for fun,” according to Polsky’s account. Florida Department of Health spokesperson Weesam Khoury told Florida Politics that Ladapo did not make that comment.

Evidence suggests masks are effective, especially alongside other mitigation measures such as social distancing. Many scientists even recommend mask mandates to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

For those who are tired of wearing masks or keeping track of the evolving rules on when to wear them, Fox has a simple solution: get vaccinated, and tell your friends and family to get vaccinated, too.

“For the normal person, I think eventually it’ll go back to normal where we don’t need to wear masks on a regular basis,” he said. “It is dependent on people following what we’re telling them.”

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