By Julie Stephenson, Occupational Health and Patient Experience Manager
Remember a few months ago when cheeky posts were all over social media poking fun at all the attention handwashing was getting? The attention made it seem as though this long standing public health and safety protocol was ‘brand new’. Although the science proving the powerful effects of washing hands has been around for over 100 years, I’ll be the first to admit since March I have developed a deep awareness of how just short my pre-meal or post-bathroom finger scrubs were. I wonder how many of us can better judge how long 20 seconds are after just a few months.
One particular meme that went viral about handwashing is connecting with me now as our community wrestles with the nerve-wrecking CDC recommendation to wear a mask or cloth face covering in public when people are around. This measure can slow the spread as there is evidence that people with COVID-19 can spread the disease, even when they don’t have any symptoms.
According to the CDC, cloth face coverings prevent the person wearing the mask from spreading respiratory droplets when talking, sneezing, or coughing. If everyone wears a cloth face covering when out in public, such as going to the grocery store, the risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 can be reduced for the community. Since people can spread the virus before symptoms start, or even if people never have symptoms, wearing a cloth face covering can protect others around you. Face coverings worn by others protect you from getting the virus from people carrying the virus.
One social media meme featured a handsome tuxedo-wearing man with a smug smile. The gentleman is raising a glass of champagne as a toast to others like himself who were “washing their hands before it was cool”. Although the meme is meant to be humorous it’s hitting a cord with me because mask wearing is not cool yet, and if I’m going to be completely honest, it’s incredibly awkward.
Like many of you, I’ve had to personally trudge through the strange thoughts and emotions about covering my mouth and nose when I’m out and about. It’s not nearly as easy to master as humming the alphabet a couple of times as you suds up in the privacy of the bathroom. Maybe it’s just me, but wearing a mask knowing I’m likely to run in to friends and neighbors has required some mental gymnastics. Covering our face with a barrier to protect others is a more public, less comfortable and highly debated commitment. And since many people have yet to adopt the practice, or worse yet, are openly criticizing the practice or the people wearing masks, following the recommendation of public health experts can leave us feeling extremely vulnerable.
Here’s the thing: with all of that to consider, wearing a mask is still the next right thing for the health and well-being of our community. Taking action to do the next right thing, especially when it’s not yet fully accepted or embraced, requires a supply of humility and courage far more than I was used to tapping into on a regular basis. Here’s a fact to think about – new things feel … well new. New doesn’t mean crazy, radical or political – it just means new. New is always hard at first. New things only get easier when the newness wears off. And newness wears off only if we keep doing the uncomfortable thing.
Time will tell how the practice of wearing a mask in public impacts our community, and if it works, it will seem like we didn’t need to do it. But I urge you to consider this, at one point in history the effectiveness of handwashing was new. Handwashing was uncertain. Some of the brightest minds of the times, resisted the ‘crazy’ idea that unseen germs on the hands of physicians could be deadly to new mothers.
It’s fun to imagine a moment back in the 1800s. Maybe the ‘radical’ person who suggested hand washing is the original smug man from the meme – toasting others for being the first to adopt his idea of a simple albeit inconvenient practice. A practice that people didn’t immediately embrace. Fast forward to today over a century later, handwashing has literally saved millions of lives. It’s common place not only in medical settings but also in homes and restaurants to protect patients, family members and consumers. It’s so very basic we make silly memes to call out those who don’t take it seriously.
What if wearing a mask or face covering is this century’s handwashing?
Learn about the cloth face coverings at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/cloth-face-coverings-information.pdf