Wearing a face mask, social distancing, and performing thorough hand washing during a pandemic should all be givens at this point. But face masks remain a sticking point for a significant portion of the US population, inspiring defiant and even violent behavior over the “right” not to wear one despite CDC guidance, escalating case counts, and various state and local mandates. There is no lack of legitimate information about the value of wearing a face mask on high-quality media platforms. However, for unfathomable reasons, the message still does not resonate for many. The same situation occurred during the 1918 Spanish Flu. It appears George Santayana's famous warning is true: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Nearly one million people worldwide have died of COVID-19 over a span of only 10 months. The long-term morbidity implications for COVID survivors are unknown but potentially significant. Yet somehow, the simple “ask” to wear a face mask is seen as a political issue and a civil liberties violation. Toss in a few conspiracy theories and a measure of “fake news,” and doubts bubble up about the veracity of supporting evidence for wearing masks and even COVID-19's virulence. This toxic mix churns out a highly polarized population.
As nurses, we have an imperative to champion this simple, evidence-based barrier to a disease that is not only sickening and killing our patients, friends, and family members, but also our healthcare team colleagues. My mind instantly flashes to overwhelmed health systems, nurses suffering moral injury and worse, and grieving family members. It is tough to witness cynical and often militant resistance to a commonsense strategy that prevents disease and saves lives.
Perhaps we should counter by asking if a face mask violates the civil liberties of OR personnel? How would the naysayers react if OR staff transmitted a deadly disease to them by choosing not to wear a mask during their surgery? How is the COVID-19 situation any different?
No prevention approach is infallible. But the prevailing evidence is strong that lowering the viral load significantly reduces risk of transmitting and contracting severe illness. Each of us has connections with people who trust us. There are teachable moments when individuals are more open to changing tightly held beliefs. Take advantage of those times. Enlist survivors and their significant others to help us turn this tide of death and destruction. Otherwise, the price paid could impact generations to come in ways we cannot yet imagine.
Until next time,
LINDA LASKOWSKI-JONES, MS, APRN, ACNS-BC, CEN, NEA-BC, FAWM, FAAN