Let’s start with this: If I knew for sure that I had COVID-19, I would not have been anywhere near someone’s doorstep, and I also wouldn’t be dropping off my kid at that person’s house.
Once I explained the situation, my friends told me to take off my mask and stay a while. In other words, they were comfortable with my home test results, and we made the mutual decision about whether I would wear a mask. My willingness to mask up is a simple courtesy and, given the ongoing COVID roller coaster, a public health necessity.
COVID-19 cases began ticking up during the summer, resulting in a 30% increase in hospitalizations in Georgia, according to data from the Department of Public Health.
That didn’t lead to a corresponding increase in mask wearing.
An Axios survey in August found that only 15% of Americans said they wear a mask some or all of the time. Only 2% of those respondents rated COVID-19 as one of the greatest threats to public health.
I get it. We all have to decide our comfort level with a virus that’s going to be with us permanently. But some people are downright hostile toward those who still think it is important to take precautions. Officials at Morris Brown College made national headlines and incurred the wrath of critics on social media when they imposed a two-week mask mandate for staff and students in late August. The mandate ended earlier this month.
I’ve had five friends contract the virus in the past month. Whenever anyone asks me to wear a mask, I always comply without hesitation.
But when my friends invited me to remove my mask at the gathering, I went through a series of calculations in my head — I had two negative test results, no known exposure to COVID-19, and no one in the room was immunocompromised.
Only after this reasoning did I take off my mask and slip it back into my purse.
In retrospect, I had to ask myself what would have been the harm in keeping it on? I clearly had some sort of respiratory issue and, even if it wasn’t COVID-19, why expose anyone else to it?
Mask wearing has become so weirdly polarized that we sometimes fail to see its overall usefulness as a general tool for good health.
“As a cultural norm in this country, we have never adopted mask wearing,” said Emory University epidemiologist Jodie Guest. “In other parts of the world, it is culturally normative to wear masks during cold and flu symptoms or on public transportation.”
Not becoming the norm is one thing. It’s another thing entirely to think we understand, or need to understand, the many reasons why someone may choose to wear a mask.
Like Guest, I am known to carry a mask with me even if I’m not wearing it. “I think of it like having an umbrella available to me,” Guest said. “On days when I know it is going to rain, I carry an umbrella.”
She wears a mask in settings where there are crowds, such as on mass transit or at large events, or if she is going to be around older people or people who may have underlying conditions that make them more susceptible to severe illness from COVID-19.
We know masks are helpful in preventing the spread of the coronavirus, but they can be helpful in other ways as well.
They are useful for protection from pollen during Georgia’s extended allergy season.
They can also protect the lungs when the air quality is poor, such as in July when Canadian wildfires sent a polluted haze across the state.
In the next few months, they can offer another layer of protection from other respiratory illnesses, including influenza and RSV, which will inevitably rise in transmission.
I like the idea of thinking of face masks as umbrellas.
You pull an umbrella out when you need it. Sometimes, it’s just drizzling. Sometimes, it’s pouring. Sometimes, you use it even when it’s sunny outside.
Umbrellas are useful, and acceptable, in many different ways, on many different occasions and for very different reasons.
Masks should be thought of in the same way.
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