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Glenn Jacobs’ disdain for mask mandate should make him a one-term mayor

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs recently said in a television news interview that if he had been in charge from the start on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there would have been no mask mandate. Let’s reflect on that for a second and run some numbers.

In the U.S. we’ve had something of a natural experiment in mask mandates courtesy of what happened in Kansas. That state’s governor issued an executive order requiring masks or other face coverings in public spaces. Some 81 counties, as allowed by state law, opted out of the mandate; 105 kept it.

Eight researchers took the opportunity to crunch the numbers over the period of June 1 to Aug. 23, 2020. The results were published in late November last year in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The incidence of COVID-19 decreased each day in the counties with a mask mandate, an average of .08 cases per 100,000 people per day. In the counties without a mask requirement, COVID cases grew at a rate of .11 cases per 100,000 people per day. The net increase in the non-masked counties over that time frame was 100%, effectively a doubling in 84 days.

Extrapolation to our situation will be difficult based on several factors, but let’s make some reasonable assumptions about Jacobs’ willingness to risk increasing the viral load in our community. We can’t really expect any decline in the rate of county residents who pick up the virus elsewhere in the state and bring it home. Some cities did push mask mandates, but Gov. Bill Lee did not for Tennessee.

We might see some greater public willingness to wear masks voluntarily if our hospitals reach crisis stages and local news reports are filled with dire warnings, but that means an expanded base of suffering and spread of the virus.

Let’s be conservative in our numbers and suggest the Kansas experience, doubling in a short window, would have been ours in a much longer window. As of May 4, some 634 Knox County lives have been lost to COVID-19, and there have been 51,741 cases.

The grim questions pile up. Who will those extra lives cut short be — a treasured aunt, a beloved shopkeeper, a friend from a sports team, a cousin, someone in your immediate family? How much smaller will high school reunions be in the next few years thanks to the pandemic and our county mayor’s indifference to science?

Don’t forget the long-haulers

Current estimates are that roughly one in 10 people who get the virus suffer long-term health problems. Under the Jacobs no-mask-mandate approach, that could mean an additional 5,152 virus survivors in Knox County with debilitating fatigue, shortness of breath, headaches, “brain fog” and/or loss of the senses of taste and smell.

The Kansas mask experiment should make it plain that our experiment with our libertarian-leaning, socially conservative former WWE wrestler mayor should come to an end in the next election cycle.

Mark D. Harmon is a professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee, and a member of the Tennessee Democratic Party Executive Committee.