Masks Do Work & Other Lessons Learned

Jun 22, 2020

When a family member is diagnosed with COVID-19, what do you do? SDPBs Lura Roti finds out by visiting with a Sioux Falls mother who recently cared for her college-age daughter.

What do you do when your 20-year-old daughter calls crying to let you know she tested positive for COVID-19? If you’re Pam Cole, you pack up your home office and drive to Vermillion.

“Children, no matter how old you are, if you’re 20 or 30 or 40, if you have your mom or someone that is a caregiver, and you tell them you are coming to help, that immediately helps. You know we draw strength as mothers from that as well,” Pam says.  “Immediately, you know my mothering kicked in… I knew immediately that I would be going there to spend time with her in quarantine in case it got worse, because she was living by herself.”  

Courtney Merchant was tested for COVID-19 after she developed a pounding sinus headache, low grade fever and extreme fatigue. When the nurse explained the results to her over the phone the University of South Dakota junior says her first reaction was fear.

“There’s a fear that comes in. It’s human nature, when you talk so much about something that’s pretty scary for a lot of people and might not be as scary for you, it’s still, it feels different when you have it rather than when you see it on the news,” Courtney says. “I was just kind of scared, I was feeling really alone. I’m in Vermillion, I almost live alone. I do have my cat.”

Courtney says although she was scared, she assumed because she was young and healthy, she would be OK. She was more concerned for her mom’s safety. 

“I was worried about my mom,” Courtney says. “You know she is healthy, but there are a lot of factors that come in that we may not know about. So, we decided that we’re going to be really careful. She would sleep in a separate bedroom on the other side of the apartment and we would wear masks when we’re around each other, so if I came into the kitchen to get food or to watch TV or something like that, I would wear a mask and she would most likely also wear a mask.”

In addition to mask wearing and social distancing, Pam also frequently disinfected all shared apartment surfaces. Their plan worked. After caring for Courtney for eight days, Pam returned to Sioux Falls and was tested. She received the news of a negative result a few days before this interview.  

“I think the message here is that yes, we need to continue to be careful,” Pam says. “I guess it’s a choice when you go out in a public place to not wear a mask, but you’re protecting yourself if you do have a mask on to a certain degree. And certainly, if you’re a carrier, you don’t know it yet, then you’re protecting everyone else you’re around.”

The Chief Medical Officer for Avera Medical Group is Dr. Kevin Post. He says more and more, evidence shows mask wearing helps prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

“So I don’t want to give you an exact number because that keeps changing, but it’s a significant drop in transmission and the value of it. I think a good way to think about it is, you’re not just doing it to protect yourself,” says Post. “You’re also doing it to protect others who may be more vulnerable, may have high risk medical conditions.”

Dr. Post says even homemade masks offer protection. And he offers some best practices.

“So there can be respiratory droplets that hit the front of your mask, but they can still have active virus in them. So, that’s why you don’t want to touch the front of your mask while you’re taking it off,” Post says.

Dr. Post says to stay safe, only touch the ties of the mask that go behind the head or ears. And store the mask, with its exterior face down on a napkin or towel. He also says if you’re caring for a friend or family member with COVID-19, it’s important to monitor your own symptoms.

“This is key, if you are taking care of a close family member with COVID, be very careful in what you’re doing with others, that you aren’t exposed to others because you don’t really know if you could be in a pre-symptomatic stage where you have contracted it but you’re not yet showing symptoms, where you could be passing it on to someone else,” Post says. 

USD student, Courtney Merchant isn’t sure how she contracted COVID-19. She says she was being careful. Washing her hands, social distancing and wearing a mask when she was in public. Now that the State Department of Health says she is free to quit quarantine, Courtney says she will remain careful. And continue to show care for others. 

For more information, visit the South Dakota Department of Health website at DOH.sd.gov.