A few weeks ago, the CDC issued new guidance stating that individuals who have been fully vaccinated no longer need to wear a mask in most settings. For many of us, this change elicited an instantaneous sense of relief and a shedding of our masks – it meant the ability to return to “normal” life.
I want to take a step backward and reflect on what wearing a mask this past year has meant and done.
Universal Precautions in Healthcare Settings
When the COVID-19 pandemic first entered our radar in early 2020, I believed that it would change our healthcare landscape in a manner similar to how HIV did in the 1980s. Prior to HIV, what healthcare professionals now refer to as “Universal Precautions” didn’t exist. Prior to the 1980s, it wasn’t a routine practice for healthcare professionals to wear gloves, face shields, and masks when treating patients, removing dressings, or handling bodily fluids. Universal Precautions are an infection control practice in which all patients are treated as if they have a bloodborne pathogen – this means that we use eye protection in the OR to reduce the risk of splashes (something that wasn’t mandatory prior to the 1980s), we wear gloves when removing drains, and we use personal protective equipment when there is a risk of contamination with bodily fluids – regardless of who our patient is or what their status is. Today, this practice is routine. Prior to the 1980s, it was not.
And because of Universal Precautions, as healthcare professionals, we do not discriminate in the care we provide our patients due to their disease status. Because of Universal Precautions, the risk of infection is far from my mind when I treat patients. And because of Universal Precautions, my patients are less likely to contract diseases from me.
What I Learned From Wearing a Mask During the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a similar change in our landscape – we began to wear masks in public places, healthcare settings, and large gatherings. The masks were intended to reduce the risk of disease transmission from respiratory droplets – protecting both parties. And I noticed a difference!
I have always worn a mask in the operating room – it is required. On occasional trips to India, I also wore a mask to reduce the airway irritation from the pollution – India is one of the most polluted countries in the world, and I would observe a tightness in my chest with breathing – wearing a mask helped with this problem.
But prior to the pandemic, I didn’t wear a mask while seeing patients, performing injections, or in large public spaces. What I observed this past year, when wearing a mask, is that I did not get sick the entire year. While I consider myself to be healthy, I have had asthma since childhood. It is not an uncommon occurrence for a minor viral illness (like a cold) to result in a full-blown asthma flare-up which required an increase in my normal inhalers, steroids, and antibiotics – and many of these flare-ups would occur after traveling on a plane I was in close proximity to others with little to no fresh air. However, while wearing a mask, I went over 12 months with no viral illnesses, no asthma attacks, and no need for additional medications – this is a lifetime record for me. What I learned from this experience is that masks do help to reduce the spread of germs – particularly when we are in close proximity to others.
Since I have learned firsthand the benefits of a mask, I’m not sure that I will be quick to throw mine away. When with family and friends – in my bubble – life is and will be normal.
However, when I travel on airplanes, I do believe that wearing a mask is beneficial – I have enjoyed being able to travel, not get sick, and not have an asthma attack.
Why Our Staff Will Continue to Wear Masks
In our office, I will wear a mask when seeing patients – my goal is to minimize risk for both my patients and myself. Frequently, when performing facial injections, I am in close proximity to my patients – for your protection, it is better if I am wearing a mask, not directly breathing on you, and not contaminating the injection sites – similar to why we wear a mask in the operating room. Also, while I am fully vaccinated, not all of my patients have been vaccinated, and some have suppressed immune systems due to cancer, medications, or other diseases. For these reasons, I believe that it is in the best interest to continue to wear a mask in this setting.
With the new CDC changes, we no longer need to wear a mask in most settings; however, we must remember that healthcare facilities are excluded from these recommendations. Furthermore, it is important to remember that masks have benefits and we need to be respectful of others and not unintentionally cause harm.