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'It is disheartening' | KCHD says masks are community safety measure, not political issue

Dr. Martha Buchanan said a lot of frustration about masks and the county's mandate stems from confusion and misinformation.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — During the Monday COVID-19 update, Knox County Health Department Health Director Martha Buchanan addressed the rising frustrations about the county-wide mask mandate put in place last Friday.

The new policy stirred up discussion and criticism among county leaders and online as people debated the constitutionality of the mandate and the effectiveness of wearing face coverings for protection against the COVID-19 pandemic.

RELATED: 'It's really simple, wear a mask' | Knox Co. Board of Health votes to make masks mandatory in indoor public spaces

"It is disheartening that these little things have become an unfortunate politicized symbol," Buchanan said holding up a face mask. "They are really just a simple safety measure to help protect our community in the same vein as seat belts, life jackets and speed limits."

Buchanan said many on both sides of the "unfortunate divide" have reached out over the past week and much of the frustration stems from misinformation, confusion and misunderstanding.

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"While I can't heal the divide or change what this has come to represent for so many, as your public health officer, it is my responsibility to share the facts," Buchanan said.

She went on to clarify some of the common points of confusion regarding masks and the recent mandate.

Science of face masks:

This is a new virus and the worldwide medical community is still learning about it. While the medical professionals did not recommend masks for healthy people in the beginning, more evidence about how the virus spreads led that recommendation to change.

"Wearing a face covering reduces the chances of someone who has no symptoms or very mild symptoms who doesn't think they're sick from spreading it to others," Buchanan said.

She understands it is frustrating when guidance changes, it is actually a good thing because that means the medical community is learning more about the virus. 

RELATED: Verify: Myths vs. facts about face masks

"It would be unacceptable if we learned new information and did nothing with it," Buchanan said.

She wants to remind the community that the recommendation to wear a cloth face covering is backed by the CDC, Tennessee Department of Health, US Surgeon General, American Medical Association, American Hospital Association, American Nursing Association, area hospitals, National Institute of Health and Johns Hopkins, to name a few.

When do you need to wear a mask?

The short answer: When you are in public places when at least 6 feet of distancing cannot be maintained.

The Board of Health's mandate means masks are now required in most indoor public spaces.

You don't need a mask when you are only around those you live with or when you're outdoors and at least 6 feet of distancing can be maintained.

RELATED: Who can't wear a face mask?

Authority of the Board of Health

Buchanan quoted from the Tennessee Code Annotated, which says "the powers and duties of the county Board of Health include adopting rules and regulations as may be necessary or appropriate to protect the general health and safety of the citizens of the county."

You can find the mandate here.

Why did the Board of Health exclude certain spaces like churches and state and federal buildings?

She said it is simply a jurisdictional matter as the Board of Health does not have authority over those buildings.

While Governor Bill Lee gave the state's six metropolitan counties authority to make their own mandates, certain buildings were excluded including places of worship and long term care facilities.

RELATED: Governor Lee gives county mayors in 89 counties authority to issue mask requirements

How does the board plan to enforce the new regulation?

Buchanan said they will be issuing warnings and providing face masks to those who do not have one when possible.

Local governments were also asked to support the new regulation and its enforcement.

Those concerned about violations should call 311 or the KCHD phone bank at 865-215-5555. Business complaints will be addressed by the environmental health division.

She said the department will work with community partners to address other complaints.

Above all, Buchanan asked people to be kind to each other during this uncertain time.

"Whether you agree with wearing a face covering or not, it helps no one when you are unkind to others," she said.

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