We’ve all heard the recommendations. “Wear a facemask in public where social distancing may be difficult to maintain.” Still, when I am out in the community—grocery shopping or paying for gas, for instance—I see varying levels of mask-wearing. It makes me wonder what the non-mask-wearers are thinking.
Once in a while, someone I know will see the disbelief in my eyes and openly admit why they are not wearing a mask. For the others, scientists and news organizations have been helpful in polling non-mask-wearers and reporting their objections. Here is a collection of the most common mask myths and my efforts to debunk them.
“I don’t need a mask.” Did you know that masks don’t actually protect the wearer as much as they protect others who come into contact with the wearer? If you happen to have the virus without having symptoms, a mask protects those around you from becoming ill. More importantly, when everyone wears one, lots fewer people get sick. So, wearing a mask is a way of saying, “I care about others’ health and wellbeing.”
“Wearing a mask doesn’t seem healthy.” One person I met said that she didn’t want the mask to inhibit her immune response. Now, having recovered from disbelief, I would like to share that from an informed medical standpoint, there is no risk of becoming immune deficient as a result of wearing a cloth or paper mask. Remember masks protect others, so germs are still getting in just fine. They find it more difficult to get out, and that’s the point.
“If I wear a mask, I won’t get enough oxygen.” Unless you have a pulmonary condition requiring extra oxygen or your mask is made of something other than fabric or paper, you should be getting plenty of life-giving oxygen. Not getting enough oxygen makes you feel sick. People get dizzy, have chest pain, get a headache, and might even pass out. If mask-wearing caused these symptoms, nobody would be able to wear them.
“I forgot.” Admittedly, wearing a mask is a pretty heavy lift in terms of habit change. Who among us hasn’t walked out the door without our mask? But you wouldn’t go for a walk without your pants. You wouldn’t go into a store without your wallet. If you forgot either of these essentials, you would simply turn the car around and go back for them. I would like to encourage everyone to think of their mask as essential, like pants.
One study uncovered that men, in particular, are more likely to think of wearing a mask as “a sign of weakness.” I agree. It is a sign of weakness. We, as a human race, are vulnerable to the coronavirus. Wearing a mask is a public acknowledgement that there is something that can kill us. While it may be more fun to pretend that we are made of steel, lots of things can kill us: a crocodile, falling from a high cliff, a car accident… Think of coronavirus as a crocodile. Pretending it doesn’t exist will not make it go away. Instead, you avoid it. In the case of coronavirus, avoiding it means keeping your distance, washing your hands, and wearing a mask.
Others say mask-wearing is “not cool.” To them, I say this: You’re right. Wearing a mask stinks. So do pandemics. We didn’t choose this situation, but we can choose how we cope with it. To put it bluntly, if we wear masks, fewer people will die.
Many people give one of the reasons above, but really they are just resistant to authority. America, with its foundation in the principles of freedom, is full of those who would rather die than be told what to do. The most recent reports indicate that the United States leads the world in coronavirus cases and deaths. If the resistance mask-wearing continues, so will the steady increase of those affected by this disease.
I urge everyone to not only wear their masks but encourage others to do so as well. The danger is real. The task of collectively surviving the coronavirus is sort of like a group work assignment in school. If half of us don’t do the work, all of us fail. Many more people will lose their lives or the lives of those they love.
Let’s work together to counteract the objections. Please join me in spreading the message that “wearing is caring.” Let people know that they don’t have to care about themselves. They don’t have to care about humanity or their fellow Americans. Wearing a mask means caring about the people they love: their spouse, their parents, their children, and their grandchildren. Not wearing a mask puts those people at risk.
Donna Barron, RN, is the infection preventionist at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.