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Staff file photo by Troy Stolt / Faith Pruitt, 5, stands outside the East Lake Courts Community Center as her mother Dominique tries to put a mask on Faith's 2-year-old brother Nehemiah so that they could receive a free COVID-19 test from the Tennessee National Guard last month.

If you're asking yourself why you're the only person in a store, on a sidewalk, in a post office or strolling in a park with a mask on, you're not alone. You're just one of a handful of people around here who has both a brain and a conscience.

As of Monday afternoon, Hamilton County had confirmed 1,889 cases of COVID-19 as well as 22 deaths including at least one child and, in the last week, a person under 40 with no underlying conditions. Our COVID-19 hospitalizations have doubled in two weeks, and the number of new cases here is steadily rising.

On the first of May, when we "reopened," we had 163 cases. Here we are at mid-June with nearly 2,000, and only Monday did our local officials acknowledge the spike is due at least in part to "businesses that have been open, businesses that are reopening [and] employees bringing the virus to newly opened sites."

Clearly, though, the spikes are also due to selfishness. The selfishness of all those maskless people going about their business as though there is no COVID-19.

They are selfish, not just reckless with their own health, because the mask is far less protective of them than it is of the rest of us who must pass them in a grocery store aisle, the sidewalk or in the post office.

In some ways, it's hard to blame them.

After all, most of our local officials put their heads in the sand for a month and a half, telling us all how safe it was to reopen, reopen, reopen. Tennessee's Gov. Bill Lee didn't make masking and social distancing mandatory. He asked for a "pledge" instead.

After all, state and federal lawmakers have been and still are pushing full steam ahead to open schools and colleges in the fall, despite a predicted resurgence of cases nationwide. (Never mind that in the South we've not yet seen even a hint of a flattening curve.)

After all, our president refuses to wear a mask, and makes fun of social distancing. He even plans to hit the campaign trail soon. He doesn't even want to hear about the virus anymore. The nation's leading infectious disease expert and a member of the national COVID-19 task force, Anthony Fauci, told CNN he hasn't spoken with the president in two weeks.

But Fauci asked Trump rally-goers to "please wear a mask."

Fauci also told CNN that states should rethink their reopening strategies if they see increases in the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19.

Our country already has logged more than 2.1 million cases and at least 114,000 deaths from the novel coronavirus that we're learning is more dangerous than it was first thought to be. Since Memorial Day, the number of coronavirus hospitalizations has gone up in at least a dozen states, and 10 states — Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — hit new highs for hospitalized patients on Sunday, according to The Washington Post.

"While we are coping with it now, this is not sustainable in the long term," Don Williamson, president and chief executive of the Alabama Hospital Association and a former state health officer, told The Post. "We're sort of at a tipping point... . What I am concerned about is that we are not seeing the response to that from the citizens that we have to [have] if we're going to get this under control. We are not seeing people wear masks, we are not seeing social distancing in the way that needs to happen."

Yet rather than consider a new closure, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey emphasized "the role of personal responsibility" to curb the spread of the virus.

Personal responsibility sounds like something a person might do to protect themselves from a pick-pocket thief. The trouble is, it's the pick-pocket who's in danger from a maskless mark with COVID-19.

There also is growing evidence that airborne transmission of the virus is occurring.

On Tuesday, Douglas Reed, a University of Pittsburgh scientist who studies infectious diseases and severe respiratory infections, wrote an essay for The Conversation about his role in helping his church decide whether and how to reopen.

The virus droplets can become aerosolized virus just with talking or singing, Reed noted, and in Skagit County, Washington, a single individual signing at a choir practice infected 52 other people.

To test how well the virus can live in the air, Reed said researchers use special equipment to create aerosolized virus and keep it airborne for long periods of time. They then take samples of the virus and see how long it stays alive in an aerosol. An early study from researchers at the National Institute of Health kept the virus airborne for four hours and found live virus the whole time. A subsequent study that Reed was part of found that the coronavirus can stay alive for up to 16 hours in the air.

"Thankfully, there is an easy, if not perfect way you can reduce airborne transmission: masks. Since people can spread the virus when they are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic, universal mask wearing is a very effective, low-cost way to slow down the pandemic," Reed wrote.

As for his church? Its members decided it will reopen, but only allow a limited number of people inside at a time and spread them throughout the sanctuary to maintain social distancing. Everyone is required — required — to wear masks. "Especially while singing," Reed wrote.

Personal responsibility? How about brotherly responsibility? Better still, mandatory brotherly responsibility.

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