In the time of COVID, our weekend excursion options are limited. Hiking has become our safe, go-to activity, and we have explored many trails in this past year. On this pleasant, overcast weekend, we chose to explore a two-mile local trial. We pass by fellow hikers, and make sure to pull our masks over our mouths and noses when we are in proximity. Some hikers have masks, while others don’t. 

As we make our way to the trails exit, we see an unmasked, middle-aged woman walking toward us with her college aged son. I observe that they are an affluent couple; they probably live in the neighborhood, since there are no parked cars in the vicinity. They are dressed in designer athletic gear. Their demeanor exudes confidence and ease. My mask obscures my smile as we make eye contact. As they come within earshot, the woman smiles widely, and casually says ‘You don’t need to wear a mask here’. I could not believe my ears. I felt as if I had been physically assaulted! Her words hurt like a knife stabbing directly into my heart! In that split second that my brain processed her assault, I looked at her directly and replied, ‘thankyou for your advice’, in the most passive-aggressive tone I could muster. The sound of their snickering chilled me to the bone and replayed in my head for hours afterwards. 

Now, I want to clarify that is not an essay about masking. I will present no data to support or dispel the efficacy of masks. After 18 months of surviving a global pandemic, I think this is a redundant debate, and I will waste no words on this topic.  In the US alone, there have been over 35 million cases and over 600 thousand deaths from COVID. The COVID community transmission map, easily accessible online, is an almost uniform red. This isn’t the time for debate, rhetoric, politics. Let’s be honest. The naysayers love to site ‘data’ that corroborates their agenda. I can site a mountain of data to contradict them, yet my data, my credibility my opinion matters less than ‘YouTube’ or ‘the internet guy’. What is that agenda? Is it freedom? Is it individualism? Is it power? Is it ‘to save the children?’ I am at a loss.

I talk to my patients everyday about the COVID vaccine. I hear, ‘I don’t trust it’, ‘it came out too fast’, ‘it causes COVID, and that’s why we are dealing with the delta variant’, ‘will I shed the virus and give it to my family?’, ‘it causes cancer’, ‘it’s causing all these deaths’, ‘it’s not approved by the FDA’, ‘we don’t know the long term side effects’ and many other bits of misinformation. It’s easy to dispel misinformation. I have googled credible information in front of my patients, calculated accurate death rates from the vaccine, explained why the vaccine cannot cause cancer, viral shedding, infertility, and all manner of ills, the most common side effects and so on. I break through some walls. And I celebrate those successes. 

But when I am out on a walk, with a mask on, I do not expect to be admonished. Why does my choice, to wear a face covering, which causes no harm to anyone, incite such a reaction from a stranger? After obsessing about this interaction, all weekend, I concluded that the barrage of misinformation, in the media, especially social media makes it impossible to weed out truth from untruth, science from pseudo-science, politics from morality. It makes people paranoid; it incites fear and hate and encourages rhetoric and even violence.

I was watching an Instagram post from a ‘mom’ with a massive online following. She stated in her post, with the utmost sincerity, that the risk of death from COVID in kids was ZERO. I wonder where she obtained this data. She went on to state that kids who had allegedly died from COVID, had underlying conditions like cancer. She concluded, therefore, that their deaths could not be COVID deaths. Would she have the courage to state this directly to the parents of this child with cancer who ‘allegedly’ died from COVID? I think not. What credentials did she have to make this sweeping statement? What message was she propagating? I heard her say that ‘the sick and vulnerable don’t count, they are dispensable, why even count their death?’. In this one post, that was viewed by thousands of followers, her narrative was ‘I am a mom that you know, so I must be trustworthy, but the media and doctors, ‘the other’ are the ‘bad guys’ and not credible’. Would her followers go to her to get treatment for their child’s cancer or any other illness, or would they refer to their pediatrician? The disconnect in this illogical thinking is impossible to comprehend. 

Social media has made us forget manners. The era of respect for elders, teachers, doctors, scientists and even neighbors, has given way to adulation for celebrities, social media darlings, anyone who speaks to our heart, who looks and sounds good on the screen. A lot of these gullible viewers don’t have the tools to discern a credible source from an uncredible one. It’s easy to get caught up in the rabbit hole of misinformation, as one search leads to the next equally or more disreputable source based on the search engine algorithm.

I will forgive this woman who was probably in her own mind ‘well meaning’ by ‘informing’ me that I ‘didn’t need to wear a mask here’. I wish I had had the presence of mind to say to her ‘I mask by choice, because I care about my community, my unvaxed kids and patients. Because I have seen COVID up-close in the ICU. Because I have scrounged for PPE. Because I have feared for my own life. Because I have signed innumerable death certificates in this last year. I mask because I am an ICU doctor.

(published in Medium)