Dr. W.S. “Chip” Riggins is the Regional Medical Director for the bayou and river areas of Region 3 Office of Public Health (OPH), which include Lafourche and Terrebonne. A retired Air Force colonel, Dr. Riggins has 30 years of state, regional and local health authority leadership as a public health and preventive medicine physician.
Dr. Riggins talked to the Times to answer various questions regarding COVID-19. In the final installment of the Q&A, he discusses in-home masking, the statewide mask mandate and what state Louisiana would be in if COVID-19 control measures were not put into place.
Q: Why is in-home masking now recommended?
A: Our R0, we are trying to get down to one or below; we know at that point where each new case is communicating or transmitting the virus to one person or less…It’s only at that point that we’ll begin to get the disease under control. And that’s a very tall order to try to make sure that new cases infect fewer than one other person, including, and perhaps most importantly right now, their close household contacts. We’re starting to see that in our contact investigation, that the virus is spreading among members of households. And of course, that’s a concern when we have older folks at home and people with other chronic conditions that may put them at risk for severe disease.
Masking at home is an extra precaution with sanitizing and disinfecting, especially the restroom and high-touch areas in your home. Maximizing the space that you put between each other even when you’re wearing a mask at home is very important, and of course, trying not to sleep in the same areas. Wearing a face mask while sleeping is not recommended. Finding separate sleep areas is another challenge, but it’s important to maintaining the physical distancing in the home so that you don’t see that household transmission.
Masks are available if folks just call 211…If you have a case in our household, you’ll get called by the contact tracing call center, and you can mention to them that you need masks or any other needs that you may have, and the resource managers will help you get that so that you can safely protect each other at home.
Q: Since we are on the subject of masks, do you believe the statewide mask mandate by Governor Edwards was necessary?
A: I think it was absolutely necessary. The more we know about COVID-19, the more we’re seeing how the virus is spread. There’s increasing data to show that cloth face coverings alone reduce the number of droplets that escape. They catch those droplets and the distances that the droplets spread. They help in several ways…The intention of those masks is not to protect the wearer, it’s to protect others that may be breathing the same air as them. And it’s to compensate for the fact that 40 percent of cases are asymptomatic. So the mask is the accommodation for the fact that we can’t trust symptoms to know when to wear a mask. If we could we could trust the fever, for instance, or a cough to be the sign that you’re infected, then you could just mask up when you develop a fever or a cough.
…I’ve noticed in our communities here in Houma and Thibodaux, very good compliance with [mask mandate]. We believe that if 80 percent of folks comply and cooperate — participate in the disease control efforts by wearing their mask, that it will result in a massive reduction in the total amount of disease that we see at any one time. Flattening the curve is very important here in our Houma-Thibodaux area. Our hospitals are hanging in there, but we have to protect them because we know that compared to the larger urban areas, we have fewer beds per capita than any other region. That makes our hospitals a little more vulnerable. We’re also taking care of our healthcare workers and protecting our hospitals when we wear a mask.
Q: If the governor’s safety measures, such as the stay-at-home order, capacity limits and wearing a mask, among others, weren’t implemented to flatten the curve in Louisiana, where would this state be in regard to the spread of COVID-19?
A: We have exercised pandemics for many years, and the exercise scenarios show that the societal cost of not controlling a pandemic eventually exceeds the cost of dealing with it. And so, I feel very comfortable saying that had we not done everything that we’ve done to try to control this pandemic, that our economic situation would be as bad or worse…One death is too many — it could have been much, much higher. So you don’t have any choice at the end of the day but to try to control the pandemic together. It’s just an effort towards the common good that we’re just gonna have to do.
…There’s no crystal ball for what that would look like, but it wouldn’t be good. If we allowed our healthcare systems to become overwhelmed with the number of cases, the domino effect of that on other diseases, heart attacks, strokes, other injuries and traumas…would really have magnified the morbidity and the mortality. And thankfully we haven’t had that; that’s a result of these control measures.
Part 3 can be found here.