The Thing About Masks

No One Likes Being Told What to Do

Masks..remember when it was cool to wear a mask? The feeling of anonymity they provide; the fun of deciding which one to wear for Halloween, or a costume party? Like spoiled children, once we were told by authorities that we have to wear them, all of the fun deflated like a punctured balloon. 

And we are a society that enjoys having fun.

Forgive me if I lack sympathy for those who feel their personal freedom is under attack when they have to wear a mask in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For over thirty years in nursing, my colleagues and I wore masks for 12 hours at a time, several days or nights a week, to prevent the spread of illness to ourselves, our coworkers, and other patients. Yes, they can be uncomfortable. Get over it.

“Whoa there, bucko,” I hear an attentive reader or two replying. “You just said you wore a mask to protect yourself. Everyone knows wearing masks protects others, and I don’t feel responsible for protecting others. If they’re vulnerable (old) they should stay home.”

Personal Protection Equipment: Masks Can Protect The Wearer

Here’s what’s wrong with that argument: For one thing, masks can protect their wearers. Think about it. In hospitals, we don’t put masks on the patients in their rooms to protect the doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, x-ray techs, and pharmacists. Nope, the hospital team wears the masks to protect ourselves. It’s called PPE: personal protection equipment. Masks protect their wearers from spread of disease.

Not All Masks Function The Same

The confusion about this, as I see it, comes from the fact that all masks are not created equal. This confusion has contributed to the current state of misunderstanding.

A bandana wrapped around your mouth and nose will not protect you from bacteria and virus, but will somewhat limit how much of each you spew onto someone else.  A few nights ago,  I watched a woman on TV discuss the economic impact of COVID-19 restrictions on her small business. While I am completely sympathetic to her plight, I could see her lips underneath her mask. I don’t mean I saw her lips moving under her mask; I could see her lips through her mask. That little mouth negligee wasn’t protecting anybody. Effective masks are multilayered.

Not all masks are created, or worn equally and that causes variances in effectiveness. In the early months of the pandemic general media probably didn’t know this, and the health care providers being interviewed may not have realized they needed to make this clear to the general public. Perhaps there was concern people would hoard masks, which were already in short supply for our first responders, like they have toilet paper. The result is patchy information that has confused the public’s perception of masks.

Just as they do in a hospital, masks work best when social distancing (isolation), and frequent hand washing are practiced at the same time. They are highly effective in this scenario.

Wear Masks in Public

Another thing I want to point out: If caring about the elderly is beyond your level of compassion, learn this: a person can be young, and immunosuppressed too. People with Crohn’s disease are often diagnosed in adolescence or as young adults, and started on immune modulators. People with rheumatoid arthritis, the same. Diabetes is common among young people. Not all chemotherapy/immunotherapy regimens induce hair loss. These are people who look otherwise healthy. The medications they take keep them healthy. They might be out distance running, cycling, or at the gym. They might be an essential worker, a doctor, nurse, police officer, or grocery store clerk. Show them that their lives matter: wear a mask in public.

Wash your cloth mask, or replace your paper one frequently. Observe social distancing. Stay home if you’re sick. Practice empathy for others. Everyone needs empathy at some point in their lives. While the vaccines on the horizon are promising, we have a long winter ahead of us. In this season of thanksgiving, let’s work together at keeping each other healthy.