Liz McCormick Published

Masks Emerge As Top Issue At Eastern Panhandle Virtual COVID-19 Town Hall

Health officials say handmade cloth face masks like these can help limit the spread of COVID-19 from the wearer to others.

The debate over whether to wear face masks to combat the spread of the coronavirus steered much of the discussion during a virtual town hall in the Eastern Panhandle Wednesday night. The Jefferson County Commission hosted the event with local medical professionals.

The aim of the event, attended by more than 50 people, was to educate and answer questions from the region experiencing the highest number of positive coronavirus cases in West Virginia. 

Callers asked questions on a wide variety of topics, such as contact tracing, antibody tests, immunity and vaccines, but one issue came up frequently – whether cloth face masks should be mandated or continue to be voluntary, and how they help against the virus.

Gov. Jim Justice has repeatedly urged West Virginians to wear a mask while out in public but has not made it a requirement as some states and U.S. cities have done. He said Thursday in a virtual press briefing that he may institute a measure next week as state cases continue to rise.

Panelists did not say whether masks should be mandated in West Virginia, but Eastern Panhandle health officer Dr. Terrence Reidy did point to evidence that shows wearing a simple cloth mask while out in public does help protect others by limiting the spread of COVID-19.

“If I cough, if I sneeze,” Reidy said, “it’s going to greatly decrease the chance of spreading, if I happen to have the virus.”

As cases of the virus spike in some states, one caller asked whether West Virginia might experience another shut down as it did in March when Justice issued his stay-at-home order.

Panelist Dr. David Baltierra, interim chair of Family Medicine in Berkeley County under WVU Medicine East, said masks are key if West Virginians don’t want to see another statewide shut down.

“The masks actually keep you going,” said Baltierra. “And so, it’s a way to keep not having to close everything down.”

A month ago, the Shepherdstown Town Council passed a resolution strongly encouraging businesses in town to require face masks of customers.

Last week, the Harpers Ferry Town Council followed Shepherdstown’s example and passed a similar resolution.

On Tuesday, the Shepherdstown Town Council passed another resolution calling on the governor to require masks in public places throughout the state.

Berkeley County leads the state in positive case numbers with more than 440 confirmed. Its neighbor, Jefferson County, has confirmed more than 220 cases of the virus.

To-date, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources reports that more than 3,000 cases of the virus have been identified in West Virginia, and at least 93 people have died.