I am an emergency medicine physician in an inner-city emergency department, and I would like to start by stating a simple truth: coronavirus is not going away any time soon. Cases are climbing in practically every state and show no signs of slowing down. From my personal perspective, things are getting worse. Every day I am treating more and more patients who are ill with COVID-19 infections. Given the spiraling case numbers, I find the refusal of some people to wear masks completely baffling. Yet I know the idea of wearing a mask stirs up a strong, visceral reaction in many who feel their personal freedoms are being curtailed. Maybe you, reading this now, are one of these individuals. If that is the case, I have a simple offer: please come to work with me.
In my emergency department on a typical day, you will see the very real and sometimes deadly consequences of coronavirus infections. You will watch as patients, some of them otherwise healthy, engage in a terrifying struggle to breathe. You can also watch as I intubate some of these patients and place them on a ventilator, then pray that my intensive care unit has a bed available. You can listen as I tell patients they have coronavirus, and you can stand there silently while I hold their hand as they cry. Do you think wearing a mask in your grocery store is unpleasant? If so, then wearing a gown, an N95 surgical mask, two sets of gloves, and face shield into every patient’s room will be really uncomfortable for you. I won’t even mention to you that, even with all of that on, you are still over three times more likely than the general public to catch coronavirus by working in a hospital. And if you do, your colleagues will have to take care of you and possibly watch you die – a wrenching circumstance that is happening all over the country, and which recently happened in the city where I live.
You may view wearing a mask as an infringement on your civil liberties, but for those of us in healthcare, it is a numbers game. Every person who refuses to practice basic preventive measures such as social distancing and wearing a mask increases the transmission of the virus. More transmission means more cases. Admittedly, the majority of those infected will only have mild symptoms and recover. Sadly, that’s not true for everyone, and I have unfortunately borne witness to that. Remember, those of us who work in the emergency department will be called upon to care for every single one of those who become critically ill with COVID-19 infections. We don’t have the option of refusing to treat these patients the way you have the option of refusing to wear a mask. To put it another way, we don’t have the “freedom” to keep ourselves safe, even though you have the “freedom” to endanger us.
Masks work. There is solid data from the CDC showing that masks drastically decrease transmission of the virus. Given that people can transmit the virus while otherwise appearing completely healthy, it is paramount that everyone wears a mask. In fact, counties with mask mandates are seeing cases drop. Those without are, predictably, experiencing surges in cases.
To me, refusing to wear a mask is unacceptable. By not wearing a mask in public, you are helping to transmit a deadly virus. Your actions are condemning countless people to serious illness and possibly death. You feel your freedom is being limited by wearing a mask? With freedom comes responsibility, and also consequences. If you insist on refusing to wear a mask, then at least have the courage to come see the consequences of your choices. Please come to work with me and see things from my perspective. Wearing a mask in public will seem a pretty small inconvenience after you do.
Gregory Jasani is an emergency medicine resident.
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