More on masks
I received some interesting responses to my July 27 guest editorial, “We all need to be more tolerant about masks.” Most responders seemed to understand the main points I was trying to make – that there are reasons why some people choose not to wear masks – such as conflicting messages or lack of personal experience with the coronavirus – and it is better to persuade those people than to compel them to wear masks.
An assertive mask wearer told me that he “confronts” people without masks in public places. Sometimes it leads to a discussion, he said. I would not recommend this approach, since there is a lot of frustration and anger on both sides of the mask debate, and confrontations have erupted in violence. I think it would be hard to start a conversation about this sensitive topic without making the other person defensive or angry. Maybe one way to persuade someone to consider wearing a mask would be to respectfully ask the person why they are not wearing a mask, acknowledge their views, and explain yours. You can, and should, quickly back off if the other person does not want to have this conversation.
I have heard a number of people say the main reason people wear masks is “fear.” This mask wearer is not scared. If I were afraid, I would stay hunkered down at home and not go out in public. I still go almost anywhere that I went before the pandemic, other than high-risk areas like crowded bars. The only difference is I am wearing a mask when I’m indoors or in a crowded outdoor space. A mask wearer who has an underlying medical condition, such as immune system deficiency from cancer treatments, but has to go out in public for food and medical supplies, is being “courageous”, especially when he or she has to maneuver around many unmasked people.
I have immersed myself in the evolving science of coronavirus transmission. There is strong evidence from laboratory experiments, hospitals, and studies of outbreaks on cruise ships and food processing plants that mask wearing provides a level of protection to the wearer, not just protecting other people. Even a simple cloth mask is a barrier to the transmittal of small respiratory droplets containing high concentrations of coronavirus, reducing the dosage, enabling your body to fight off the disease or resulting in a lower grade infection. So, we are doing a disservice by denying the self-benefit of wearing a mask. It really is like wearing a seat belt, although it is still important for the other person “to stay in their lane” by wearing their own mask.
We make decisions every day that involve risk, whether we consciously think about it or not. The drive to the airport may be more dangerous than the flight, even with potential exposure to this novel virus. Public health officials can advise us about coronavirus transmission and how to reduce our risk, but ultimately our elected leaders have to make the tough decisions about how and where to shut down and safely reopen. We have to tolerate a level of COVID-19 risk to keep our economy going and avoid the pain and suffering associated with an economic depression. However, if people do not feel safe, it doesn’t help to reopen the economy when many will not fully participate.
The other day at the supermarket almost everyone was wearing a mask, and wearing it properly, over their nose. It gave me a good, safe feeling. We need to commend and support the many businesses that have taken steps, sometimes at considerable expense, to make their stores safer. They have done their part; now, you need to do yours. If you want our economy to reopen more fully, please wear a mask in public indoors or outside when you can’t social distance, even if you are willing to take the risk of not wearing one. At least you will be making other people more comfortable with going out in public and spending their money, plus the life you save may be your own!
Kevin McJunkin is a graduate from the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina.