On January 22, 2020, a plane landed in Toronto, Canada, carrying passengers from Guangzhou, China, and before that, Wuhan, China — the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the flight was a man who had a dry cough and eventually went on to test positive for COVID-19. However, despite the close proximity on the airplane, all 25 people who sat closest to him on the flight tested negative for the virus.
Was it sheer luck? Divine intervention? Magic? No, no, and that would be wonderful, but no. It was much simpler — the man was wearing a mask.
There are plenty of mask-success stories just like this one, such as the two hairstylists in Missouri who tested positive but didn’t pass the virus onto any of their 139 clients. Why not? Both the stylists and the clients wore masks.
By now, the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19 shouldn’t surprise you. What might surprise — or frustrate — you is how many Americans are still struggling with a simple task that could save so many lives.
Early August projections predicted the COVID-19 death toll in the US could reach nearly 300,000 by December 1 — but consistent adherence to mask-wearing could save around 70,000 lives in that same time span.
Despite their effectiveness in saving lives, some Americans remain adamantly against any type of face covering. In May 2020, a survey of over 4,000 adults in the US revealed that only about 60% of respondents always wear a mask out in public — and over 17% rarely or have never worn a mask in public.
Because of the possibility of both pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission, everyone should wear a mask when out in public. Health experts predict that if just 80% of the population did, it would do more to reduce COVID-19 spread than a strict lockdown.
Unfortunately, we’re not even close to that level of mask-wearing, leaving many of us wondering — why on earth not?
Masks have been called an infringement on freedoms.
In June 2020, former Major League Baseball player Aubrey Huff posted on Twitter that he was done wearing masks inside any business. “It’s unconstitutional to enforce. Let’s make this BS stop now! Who’s with me?” he wrote.
Thousands of people called him out for disrespecting his community, putting others at risk, and considering dying preferable to wearing a mask. However, Huff stood firm in his beliefs — much like many other Americans who claim they’re being forced to forfeit their freedoms by being required to don a mask.
In Michigan, nearly 700 protesters gathered to protest mask-wearing. In Florida, anti-maskers ran through Target telling other customers to “take their masks off” and yelled that they weren’t “going to take it anymore.” There was even a store security guard shot and killed by customers after he asked them to put on a mask before entering the building.
In the land of the free, Americans value their freedoms, and some have felt distressed, indignant, and even morally outraged at the concept of wearing a mask.
Some have compared this reaction to the ban on smoking cigarettes inside restaurants. Both ask people to do (or not do) something that can be damaging to someone else’s health.
The difference is, while the smoking ban is permanent, masks requirements won’t last forever (hopefully). Plus, not one law or court has supported masks being unconstitutional.
Masks have been associated with weakness.
Similar to how some teenagers flaunt driving without a seatbelt (note: seatbelts save lives), there are people who feel that masks make them look weak. One study showed that people think of wearing a mask as “shameful” and “not cool.”
Unfortunately, they’re not the only ones. President Trump has publicly ridiculed mask-wearers for appearing weak. Just 2 days after mocking his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, for wearing a mask at the first presidential debate, President Trump himself was diagnosed with COVID-19.
This diagnosis came after a largely mask-less event for the President’s supreme court nominee — what White House officials believe to be the cause of more than a dozen positive cases among attendees.
As public officials continue to not only refuse to wear masks but also downplay the seriousness of the virus, it only furthers the dangerous mindset of masks being weak.
Men — who have a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 — are more likely to shun masks for this reason. To some, the mask is a symbol of vulnerability, and putting on the mask is equivalent to admitting they’re scared of this deadly virus.
However, whether or not you choose to admit it, this is a scary time in history, and we are vulnerable. Denying that only puts you and others in harm’s way.
Messaging around mask effectiveness has caused some confusion.
The beginning of 2020 was a whirlwind. One day, Americans were eating at restaurants, hosting parties, and walking around with no concept of wearing a mask.
Within 3 months, masks went from unnecessary to recommended for anyone who goes out in public. Because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) initially advised not wearing a mask if you’re healthy, it left many people feeling confused or even wronged when guidelines were changed.
To add to the confusion, while major health organizations like the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) emphasize the importance of mask-wearing, plenty of high-ranking national leaders have been seen in public not wearing a mask.
The message has been muddled, to say the least. Unfortunately, this has left space for people to make up their own minds instead of listening to expert guidance.
Months ago, it was unclear what role masks would play in the transmission of COVID-19. Now, we know about the high probability of asymptomatic transmission, and everyone is advised to wear masks in public.
Masks can be slightly uncomfortable.
Unlike in other countries, Americans have never been asked to wear masks in public until now. While it is more widely accepted in east Asian countries, people in the US aren’t used to wearing a mask if they’re ill — and some are having a hard time adjusting to the physical aspect of this safety measure.
It is true that masks can cause slight anxiety for some, leading to a rapid heart rate, trouble breathing, and feeling hot and sweaty — all of which can be uncomfortable.
However, there are ways to ease mask-related anxiety and discomfort, such as:
- Recognizing what you’re feeling as anxiety and reminding yourself that these feelings will pass
- Taking slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth
- Finding a mask that fits comfortably and works for you
One of the most effective ways to get past the discomfort is actually to wear your mask. Get used to what it feels like while at home, and build up to wearing it for longer periods of time.
Mask anxiety is real — but so is the anxiety that comes with seeing others not wearing masks to keep everyone safe.
What To Say To People Who Choose Not To Wear A Mask
There are plenty of reasons why people disregard mask requirements, but the fact remains that they save lives. The more people that wear them, the more effectively they prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Aside from the general public, let’s remember the countless frontline healthcare workers who have put their lives at risk and their families on hold to treat COVID-19 patients. Refusing to wear a mask increases the burden on them.
Listen to a recent episode of Modern Healthcare’s Next Up podcast (hosted by our CEO Kadesha Smith) featuring Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health in the New York Metro area, once the epicenter for COVID-19 infections. Twenty of his frontline workers died treating COVID-19 patients.
Refusing to wear a mask is like a slap in the face to our healthcare workers. If someone you know and feel comfortable with refuses to wear a mask, this is a good opportunity for a productive conversation. Acknowledge the minor discomforts of wearing a mask, then remind them that masks are not about their safety. They’re about the safety of their most at-risk friends, family, and neighbors.
If they still refuse to wear a mask when you’re together, it’s okay if your social bubble becomes a little smaller for the time being.
If you encounter a maskless individual in public, such as at a grocery store, let a store employee or security personnel know. If the individual is near you, politely ask them to please stand away from you. If they won’t, be prepared to leave. Public shaming and threats are often ineffective, and they can also create a dangerous situation.
COVID-19 has handed the world plenty of challenges — some that are in our control and others that are not. It’s normal to feel frustrated when others around you are not wearing masks. For now, make sure you’re doing your best to keep yourself and those around you safe — and maintain your distance from those who aren’t quite there yet.