How one unmasked employee can trigger a COVID cluster

Mask usage is perhaps the most critical factor in stopping the spread of COVID-19. The science is well-established: masks help block the airborne virus from entering your airways, significantly reducing your risk. If you’re a carrier, a mask can help prevent the virus from reaching others, protecting those around you.

Why mask-wearing matters

Consistent mask usage has a life-saving impact. According to data projections from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, if everyone in America followed the mask guidelines, an estimated 135,000 lives would be spared between now and January 1st.

But that ideal is far from the current reality. Despite mask mandates in 42 states (including North Carolina), mask compliance is still far too low, whether from the influence of anti-mask rhetoric or the slight inconvenience of donning a face covering.

How a single person can have a far-reaching impact

Most of North Carolina’s COVID clusters involve congregate living settings, schools, colleges and child care centers. However, a recent outbreak at a hair salon in Haywood County demonstrates how one person’s failure to wear a mask can fuel an outbreak that spreads like wildfire. According to reports, at least 18 people have tested positive after visiting a salon in Canton, a small community 20 miles west of Asheville. The outbreak includes five employees, six customers, and seven family members or close contacts of those infected. So far, three people have been hospitalized. The cluster likely started with a single employee who failed to wear a mask consistently.

It’s a stark contrast to the Missouri hair salon that made headlines in June when two infected employees serviced 140 customers. None of those customers contracted COVID. The employees and customers had all worn masks.

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