With over 900,000 infections and 50,000 deaths in the United States from COVID-19, wearing a mask in public is now a popular thing to do. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control is recommending that everyone wear “cloth face coverings” and many cities and states have placed orders for universal masking. Even First Lady Melania Trump has a picture of herself wearing a medical mask on her Twitter page. Many hospitals have required universal masking for their employees, though it appears that this effort was to ensure adequate staffing, rather than trying to protect healthcare workers from getting sick. My concern is that people will stop wearing masks when they are no longer required, unwilling exposing people to this deadly virus.
There is science to support wearing masks. Multiple medical and scientific journals have presented data on the asymptomatic and presymptomatic transmission of COVID-19. It is amazing that a disease so virulent to some can present without symptoms in more than 25% of those infected. Unfortunately, people can spread this disease for several days before they become symptomatic. In this case, masking may be the only way to prevent others from getting sick when social distancing measures are lifted. Wearing a mask is presumed to stop the spread of large respiratory droplets containing virus particles. Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan are examples of populations who were able to flatten their curves despite having much closer proximity to China, higher population density, and early exposure to the virus. Wearing a mask is compulsory in these areas and is seen as a sign of good hygiene. In fact, Alex Lam, a Hong Kong lawyer, is quoted as saying, “Not wearing masks in Hong Kong is like not wearing pants nowadays.” Unfortunately, wearing a mask in the United States has the social stigma of being sick, unlike with our Asian counterparts.
It is our time to reclaim the mask! Let’s take away this cultural stigma. In this time of medical crisis, the public looks to physicians to be leading examples of what to do to stay healthy. There has rarely been a time where we have been so respected, so regaled for doing the ordinary work we do every day. Let’s use this extra attention for good. As a profession, we can make the mask a symbol of protection rather than sickness. Universal masking may also reduce racial profiling, such as the two black men who were kicked out of Walmart for wearing face coverings. Or the Asian Americans who have been yelled at, spit on, or beaten for wearing masks and were assumed to have COVID-19. I have personally pledged to wear a mask in public until I am no longer at risk of being infected or there is a vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19.
Why should we do this? Because we are constantly at risk of being exposed to COVID-19 at work, sometimes unknowingly. There are very few professions that have this exposure to disease as part of everyday work. As a physician, you took an oath “to do no harm” or something similar in medical school. What could be more harmful than unknowingly exposing a healthy person to a deadly virus? Admittedly, it’s a scary time. I look at my two children and wonder if my next workday will take me away from them forever or leave me on a ventilator for weeks. Every medical professional realizes sometime in their training that they will be exposed to disease. But this reality wasn’t a big deal to me when I was single and in my 20s. Now that I am married, have two young children, and in my late 30s, these choices weigh heavily on me. But I knew what I was getting myself into. In contrast, did the applicants to Trader Joe’s or Costco know that they would be frontline workers in this pandemic? Did they know that they would be given limited personal protective equipment and berated for long lines intended to keep customers safe? I doubt it. Thank you, grocery and drug store workers and gas station attendants, for keeping this country going with limited supplies or respect. As a sign of appreciation, I wear my mask for you.
Heather Ballard is an anesthesiologist.
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