While the public health emergency expires today, many states have already announced you can leave your mask at home when you go to the doctor. In fact, way back in September the CDC stopped recommending universal masking in health care settings (in areas where community transmission is not high).
But as a pediatrician, I’ll be keeping my mask on, and I want you to do it, too.
First of all, consider that masking prevents you from catching other respiratory viruses besides COVID-19. Only one child died of the flu when everyone was masking in the 2020-2021 season. The usual numbers are in the hundreds. The CDC didn’t even create statistics for flu that season for adults because there was just not enough around — yet usually there are tens of thousands of flu deaths in adults. Then, masking fell away in most places, people started going out and pretending viruses were not a thing, the CDC relaxed healthcare masking in September, and we had the “Tripledemic” right after that. Had you even heard of RSV before last fall?
In my office, we see sick children, sometimes accompanied by sick adults, every single day. Right now, we ask everyone over two years old to wear a mask when they enter the building. But imagine if we stopped?
Here are two possible situations:
Situation 1: You are the patient (or you are with the patient) and you are sick with some viral symptoms like fever, cough, sniffles. You’ll sit in the waiting room for a while — exposing other patients to your sickness, maybe including really young babies. Then you’ll come into the examination room and see at least two people at close quarters, a nurse and a doctor. They see lots of other people in the day and breathe their air, too.
Then you’ll leave the examination room behind, with your viruses floating around, and the next person to come in will breathe in the air you just breathed out. They might be a baby or someone who is immunocompromised or elderly. You could get a lot of people sick. In other countries, wearing a mask is just considered the right thing to do if you have any symptoms. I would put it to you that it would just be generous of you to wear a mask around the doctor’s office if you are sick.
Situation 2: You aren’t sick with anything contagious, but the others in the waiting room might be. Or your nurse or doctor. Or the person in the room right before you. So, you might be glad not to get whatever they had.
Our air exchange rates may be better than they were before, but there’s still not that much time between patients in rooms. Maybe you aren’t worried about getting sick?But maybe you should be — people who are sick miss days of work or school. They feel bad. And they spread disease — are all the people in your life you care about able to survive the flu, covid, or RSV? Can they all afford to miss work or school? What about your neighbor, the people at the stores you shop in, the doctor you’ll see, and the people in the medical office when you come in sick? And, despite the complaining I hear sometimes, it is not that hard to wear a mask for an hour at the office. It is just common sense.
So, please, wear a mask when you go to the doctor. It stops the spread of disease. It is generous, and it is common sense, and it is the right thing to do.
Ada Fenick MD is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Yale University and a fellow of the Op-Ed Project.