I don’t think I’ll stop wearing my mask even when this pandemic is over. The United States is currently in its third wave, with a higher number of new cases per day than the first wave in March and April and the second wave in July. Over 80,000 new cases were recorded in a single day this month, and there’s no sign of this trend stopping anytime soon. With luck, a vaccine will be widely available in the summer of 2021, but that’s little consolation to the 700 or so people who will die each day in the interim.
Even after a vaccine is produced and distributed to the vast majority of the population, there’s no reason we should abandon the public health measures we’ve taken during the pandemic. Masks and proper physical distancing are some of the cheapest and most effective ways to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, ongoing pandemic or not. While everyday physical distancing may be out of the question, hopefully we as a society fully embrace the idea that those who are sick should stay home and limit their physical interactions as best as they can. Masks, on the other hand, should be a staple of our wardrobes no matter how we feel healthwise. Take the flu, the common cold or some yet undiscovered superbug—all would be mitigated and their damage reduced by just wearing a mask.
With COVID-19 staring us dead in the face for almost a year now, it’s easy to forget that the flu, while not at all of the same magnitude as COVID-19, still kills thousands of people every year. Even if we move past the current pandemic, the reality of deaths from communicable diseases is not going away. Worse, unless the vaccine developed for COVID-19 has an effectiveness rate in the mid to high 90s, cold and flu season could morph into coronavirus and flu season. There is a real possibility that COVID-19 is not fully eliminated and becomes an illness that reemerges every year for the rest of our lives. Masks can be uncomfortable, but, like it or not, they may become the new normal for years to come.
I say “like it or not,” but I am clearly in the former category and not the latter. Wearing a mask is like leaving everyone else a little note that says, “I care about you and your health.” Of course, this is true for most masks, but not all. Choosing to wear a mask which has a vent in it is a stupid, selfish decision. The efficacy of a mask is not based on how well it protects the wearer, but how it protects everyone else. If one person is wearing a mask and nobody else is, the masked person has very little protection; the point is not to stop viruses from getting in, but to stop them from getting out. Wearing a mask with a valve or a vent does very little to protect the wearer, and does even less to protect bystanders. Not all masks are created equal, and for this reason it’s important to understand that a good mask is one that protects others.
Valves and vents aren’t the only type of mask to be avoided. N95 are some of the safest masks available for both the wearer and those around them, and that’s precisely the reason that Joe-on-the-street should not be wearing them. For those who have regular attention spans, you may not remember that around 150 or so news cycles ago, shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) were rampant. That was in the first wave. We’ve had another wave of COVID-19 in the interim. We’re once again experiencing record level numbers. A major part of these PPE shortages was a lack of available N95 masks. Doctors and nurses and medical professionals of all stripes need these masks much more than anyone else. Wearing an N95 mask as a non-medical worker displays at best a surprising level of ignorance about a pandemic that has been raging for most of a year, or at worst a malignant selfishness that reflects a complete lack of regard for the safety of the medical workers who may have to save your life one day.
Wearing a mask is better for everyone’s health inside and outside of a pandemic, and it’s an easy way to tell other people that you care about them, but there is another reason that I plan to wear a mask well after COVID-19 has lost the status of pandemic. As I write this, over 220,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Worldwide, 1.15 million. When this is over, I imagine a lot of people want to go back to normal. There is no back to normal, not for the 1.15 million who have died, not for their loved ones. For those that died, let my mask be a commemoration. For those that sacrificed, let my mask be a reminder that their sacrifice was not in vain. And for those who could have done more and chose not to, from Donald Trump to the traveler who refuses to wear a mask, let my mask remind them of their failures and the consequences of their actions.