November 30, 2021

Epidemiologist: Face masks, social distancing a must

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Les Roberts stands Monday outside New Ministries Hospitality Center in Cincinnatus. Roberts is an epidemiologist and professor at Columbia University who lives in German. He talked about COVID-19 and disease spread.

Les Roberts of nearby German is impressed by Central New York’s response to COVID-19 — that people here are wearing their face masks and keeping their social distance.

The epidemiologist, 58, is a professor at Columbia University, who commutes to New York City to teach his classes, as well as enjoying nature on his nearby farm.

Roberts, Todd Simmons from NY Connects and Bill Hopkins, an advocate for Alzheimer’s patients, were speakers Monday at New Ministries’ Life Challenges Group in Cincinnatus.

Roberts, who studies health and disease in defined populations, gave a thumbs up to people here.

“When I see 90% wearing masks and keeping their six feet of distance, this is great. People are buying in,” he said. “It’s not by chance that New York brought their transmission down.”

“The virus is invisible out there. We have several hundred threats a day. When wearing a mask, there’s a 20 to 30 percent reduction of risk. Washing hands there’s a 10 percent reduction of risk. … The breath ways are more important than surfaces,” he told the group of 16.

Masks are “really important,” he said.

“Most infectious people with COVID do not get very sick or go to a doctor, so most spreaders don’t know they have it. We all breathe with many people per day, whether we know it or not,” he said later in an email.

“If a mask reduced my chance of infection by 30% and everyone I encounter today wears a mask and has been reducing their chances of infection by 30% and everyone they encountered in the past couple weeks has been wearing a mask, which reduced their infection rate by 30%, my chance of getting infected has been reduced by 66%. …. Widespread mask wearing among our community is very protective,” he said. And add 10% reduced rate of infection by hand washing and 25% from social distancing, the protective rate goes up higher. It could be a 90% reduction in risk, he said.

And understanding culture’s role is important. Roberts saw the ebola outbreak in Africa. A main way ebola was transferred was through burial practices.

“In West Africa, (the belief is) the soul leaves the body slowly, over 24 to 48 hours. You don’t go to heaven. Your ancestors are all around us. … It’s important to rinse the body in the hours after the body dies. It’s cleansing the soul,” he said.

That water that rinsed the body can be touched by loved ones at the funeral, which can transfer the disease.

“In this culture, a lion’s share of people who got sick were at burial (sites),” Roberts said.

The U.S. is big on individual freedom, he said, but laws requiring a helmet for motorcyclists, for example, are determined by individual states. An accident by a rider without a helmet affects the rider only.

For mask wearing, states set up the rule. But wearing a mask doesn’t simply protect the wearer. It protects people from the wearer or her. People need to realize how important they are.

“In early 2021 there will be a vaccine, I am hopeful,” Roberts said. And if 65 to 70 percent of the population gets vaccinated, COVID-19 will be brought under control, he said.

“I did learn more about the vaccine then I knew before,” said Lois Dodge of Cincinnatus.

Attendees wore masks and were seated six feet apart. “My son spent a semester in Africa,” Dodge said. “I was very interested to hear what he said about Africa.”

Bill Hopkins of Homer, a psychologist and retired professor, talked about the importance of looking at people with Alzheimer’s disease as people first, not as someone with a disability. He emphasized the need to touch and care for each other and to treat people with dementia as if they matter.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Bill Hopkins of Homer, a psychologist and retired SUNY Cortland professor, shows off a mechanical stuffed cat Monday at New Ministries in Cincinnatus. The dolls can comfort people who have Alzheimer’s disease.

He showed a mechanical stuffed cat and dog that mimic real animals being used in nursing homes. The animal works like a live pet, allowing the release of happy chemicals in the brain and providing comfort.

Sister Kathleen Heffron, a director of New Ministries, said her agency can obtain the mechanical pets if there is a need.

Simmons, a specialist with NY Connects who works out of the Access to Independence of Cortland, talked about the problem solving service that people can call for help at 607753-7363.

Donna Law of Taylor said Hopkins demonstrates simple tools that are helpful.

“And the epidemiologist was something!”