March 09, 2020 | | Comments 1
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If this isn’t a holdup, why are so many people wearing masks?

I suspect this is as much a confluence of any number of (seemingly/probably) unrelated elements, including a presidential election year in a certain North American nation, but it does seem to demonstrate, on a fairly significant scale, the power of fear to motivate folks to, and in some instances, past, the point of panic. There is no question that COVID-19 represents a significant turn of events in the epidemiological world and certainly has the potential to cause real havoc across the globe (I’ve always maintained that the bugs can evolve faster than we can). But it astonishes me the lengths to which folks will go to give in to their fears.

As I type this, I am sitting in an airport that serves a large area in the Northeast (euphemistically, the home of the New English), and I am quite taken aback by the number of folks wearing surgical masks for traveling. I will admit that I have not spent a lot of time recently (or, indeed, ever) watching the doom and gloom (or is it gloom and doom?) pronouncements of the various news organs—I tend to rely on the folks whose job/charge is to keep an eye on this type of stuff—folks like the CDC. I know that there are those for whom the CDC carries not much in the way of authority, but (being comprised primarily of human beings), perfection is the goal, but not necessarily the reality. But there are certain (to my mind) inescapably logical elements:

  • CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
  • Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others.
  • The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a healthcare facility).
  • Stay home except to get medical care.
  • Stay home: People who are mildly ill with COVID-19 are able to isolate at home during their illness. You should restrict activities outside your home, except for getting medical care.
  • Avoid public areas: Do not go to work, school, or public areas.
  • Avoid public transportation: Avoid using public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis.

So, if you should only wear a mask if you are sick and if you are sick, you should stay home except to get medical care (a very reasonable chain of reasoning), then why am I seeing masks at the airport?

I do believe that everyone gets to make their own way in the world, at least to the degree that the impact of that “way” does not have a negative impact on everyone else’s “way.” But there are already reported shortages of supplies and it just seems to me that such actions are not (at least not yet) supported by the data. But there is something that can be done—and I’ve not seen enough of this CDC recommendation in action:

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.

As I think about it, wearing a mask doesn’t absolve anyone of the responsibility to wash their hands, but hand hygiene numbers in the public sector are not nearly where they should be. Which leads me to this question: What’s the best way of shaming the hand-hygiene deficient? I’d love to hear any stories you might have.

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Steve MacArthur About the Author: Steve MacArthur is a safety consultant with The Greeley Company in Danvers, Mass. He brings more than 30 years of healthcare management and consulting experience to his work with hospitals, physician offices, and ambulatory care facilities across the country. He is the author of HCPro's Hospital Safety Director's Handbook and is contributing editor for Briefings on Hospital Safety. Contact Steve at stevemacsafetyspace@gmail.com.

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  1. Agree with you that we have to wash hands more frequently, but that;s not enough.People have to go outside sometimes,it’s quite necessary to wear face masks at the moment. Company has to run,students go to school, we need shopping, and we do not know who might be the potential risk of infection.This is an effective way proved in somewhere else.Health is the priority now.

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