Randy wearing a mask in the office

In the weeks after I returned to the office following my two-week quarantine with COVID-19, I opted to wear a mask in the office. I likely wasn't contagious with the virus anymore, but it was a precaution I felt was still important to take.

I was the first Iowa Information staff writer to mention the words “novel coronavirus” in a story this year.

It was in the Feb. 15 print issue of The N’West Iowa REVIEW as an addendum to a story I wrote that week about how the region was entering peak influenza season.

My editor had asked me to look into reports of a new disease — what we all now call COVID-19 — that we were hearing about in other parts of the world.

At the time, about 26 Iowans were being monitored for signs of the virus, since they had recently traveled to China where the novel coronavirus originated.

What followed from there was — well, we all know what followed.

I wrote in March about the anxiety I felt when I learned my mom and stepdad got tested for the coronavirus after returning from a vacation in Mexico and reported feeling sick.

That was still in the early days of the pandemic when public knowledge about the virus — not to mention testing — was relatively scarce.

My stepdad’s results eventually came about a week later. If I remember correctly, he was negative. I don’t believe my mom ever heard back on her results since her test was taken to a separate lab from my stepdad’s.

Either way, they got to feeling better and I’m thankful for that.

The pandemic is why I dreaded going to my older sister’s wedding in August, even though all the attendees were required to wear masks while at the hotel where the ceremony took place. As far as I know, no major outbreaks resulted from the event (although, the event did take place in Poweshiek County, which has reported relatively low rates of community spread all year).

Then in September, I tested positive for COVID-19 and spent about half that month self-quarantining.

I felt gross the entire time: My head was stuffed solid, my throat felt like it was going to split open whenever I swallowed and my lungs felt like they had weights attached to them, making each breath more difficult than it should have been.

I also developed a nasty cough, which has lingered with me for more than a month since I first got my test result back.

Luckily, I was able to work from home on my laptop and cellphone those two weeks and was, therefore, able to feel productive during the day.

But the sense of isolation — as well as the all-consuming, guilt-driven dread that I could possibly have passed it along to someone else in the days before I went to get tested — stuck with me those two weeks too.

I eventually recovered and was able to return to work in the office. Even though I shouldn’t have been contagious at that point, I still chose to wear a mask in the office the first couple of weeks after my quarantine ended.

Although my body feels better, the virus still hasn’t left me in many ways.

I recently heard from family members in my native Grinnell that friends of theirs died from the virus. It isn’t the first time I’ve heard such news this year, but I sure hope it will be the last.

I also still write about the virus on a daily basis in stories which mention — either directly or indirectly — the ramifications of the pandemic.

I still scan the Iowa Department of Public Health’s coronavirus website to check the ever-increasing positive case numbers statewide and in N’West Iowa, as well as the 14-day positivity rate. That latter statistic gives us insight into how prevalent the virus is in a given region by letting us know the percentage of tests in the past 14-day period that came back positive. The higher the percentage, the higher the community spread.

During my time in quarantine, Sioux County was posting the highest positivity rate in the state, followed by Lyon County. 

At the time, the state health department acknowledged the increased rate in Sioux County wasn’t due to any particular outbreaks — it was simply due to community spread.

To be honest, I wasn’t all that surprised.

Whenever I had been out on assignment before going into quarantine, the sight of people wearing masks — not just in Sioux County but N’West Iowa in general — was somewhat rare.

The governor has not issued a mask mandate for businesses and other public places throughout the pandemic, so wearing face coverings in public has so far been optional but highly recommended.

When I listened to the governor respond recently to a question about why she hasn’t issued a mask mandate and hear her say Iowans are already accomplishing it by choosing to wear masks on their own, I must admit, I groaned internally.

So many of my observations in N’West Iowa begged to differ from Reynolds’ confident statement. Maybe other communities in Iowa are better about masking voluntarily in public, just not the ones I’m familiar with here.

Earlier that week, Reynolds had announced changes to state public health guidelines in which self-quarantining isn’t required of someone who comes into contact with a positive COVID-19 case as long as each person is wearing a mask.

The guidance is not in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines regarding quarantining and still leaves the ultimate choice of wearing masks in public up to individuals, but it’s something.

It was at least enough to finally convince several school districts in our region to adopt mask requirements that week. Up to that point, some districts were reporting large numbers of students and staff who were quarantined due to possible exposure to the virus.

A common argument against masking I’ve heard this year is that it’s not a perfect way to prevent exposure, which is true. I’ve been wearing a mask everywhere I go in public yet still somehow got exposed to the virus.

However, medical professionals across the board, including N’West Iowa doctors such as Dr. Ryan Becker of Sheldon, agree: If more people wear masks, the rate of community spread will be lower.

Another common argument I’ve come across from people refusing to wear masks is a variation of the sentence, “I don’t want to wear a mask because I don’t want to live in fear of the virus!”

President Donald Trump — who has been recovering from COVID-19 himself — also hinted at a similar idea in a tweet in which he told Americans not to be afraid of the virus or let it dominate their lives.

Although I’m not clear on what specifically Trump was getting at with that comment, it made me think of the above comments from people who refuse to wear masks.

I happened to be browsing my Facebook feed the other day and came across a post from someone in my hometown who decided to explain why he chooses to wear a mask.

In the post, he pushes back against the idea he wears one out of fear of the virus — even though he says he is diabetic.

He instead chooses to wear one because he loves the people around him and doesn’t want to inadvertently spread the virus to them.

He also explains that if he were to accidentally spread the virus to people in a work environment, they would have to quarantine and the business would have to temporarily shutter.

He describes the action of wearing a mask as a fairly simple thing to do to keep people around him safe.

He acknowledges it’s not a fool-proof defense against being exposed to the virus but reminds us more masking will reduce the number of overall exposures and deaths.

In summary, he writes, “I do not live in fear, but rather in respect of the virus and in love of others. Live in love. Wear a mask.”

I dare more N’West Iowans to do the same.