“I am not required to wear a mask! I am doing you a favor!” the nurse screeched, waving a face mask at me. I had asked her to put one on just minutes before.
I was in a consultation room at a doctor’s office, and the nurse, barefaced, had come in to take my vital signs. Recalling the other patients coughing in the doctor’s lobby, I was alarmed. It was right before Christmas when COVID infections were rising, and hospitals were filling up.
“I want you to know I am not required to wear this!” she emphasized, snarling as I backed away, pressing my own mask closer to my face. I did not want another second to pass with her expelling her breath at me. She finally put the mask on — but only after giving me another growl.
Months earlier, as the highly transmissible omicron was at its peak, an even more disturbing incident happened at another doctor’s office. I was in the consultation room and told the nurse, who was masked, that I wanted the doctor to wear a face mask when he came in to see me. She shook her head.
“He is not going to do that for you,” she said quietly, looking away.
Thinking I did not hear her right, I asked again. She left the room. A few seconds later, the office manager came in unmasked, glared at me and said sternly, “The doctor is not going to wear a mask for you. He has rights. First Amendment rights!”
“Could he put one on — just for the few minutes he is here with me?” I countered, begging her while adjusting my mask closer to my face.
“No!” she shouted impatiently. “He has rights! First Amendment rights I tell you!”
I stood up and left.
In both appointments I had some kind of bug — I didn’t know what. I thought: “Isn’t this a two-way street? Can’t medical professionals catch something from me, fall ill or, worse, pass it to someone else, someone who already has another medical complication?”
I thought about patients’ rights and the oath of doctors: Do no harm. Wouldn’t the medical practitioner be doing harm if he infected me or caught something from me and infected other patients?
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has been politicized, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rolled back its mask-wearing recommendations — quietly dropping its universal recommendation last fall for healthcare facilities — mask-wearing anywhere has been highly unpopular.
Yet COVID continues to infect, mutate and kill. And scientists have yet to gain a full understanding of it or how to eradicate it. As long as these truths remain, and there continues to be a mixed reception of the COVID vaccine and boosters, wouldn’t it be prudent to have masks worn in healthcare facilities, breeding grounds for communicable diseases? Moreover, wouldn’t responsible and competent medical professionals wear masks at work to protect themselves and patients without waiting for a request, a rule or a law?
Speaking to family, friends and acquaintances all across the country I find that I am not alone in believing that face masks should be worn in all healthcare facilities.
What can be done?
As patients, we no longer can just hope or depend on laws or rules to protect us. We can, however, speak up. We can all ask medical professionals to cover up with a face mask each time we visit doctors’ offices. When they do, the benefit goes a long way, well beyond ourselves. It protects other patients — particularly the sick, elderly and the physically vulnerable — as well as the medical staff, their families and, ultimately, the whole community.
But we have to have the courage to do this — and to do it diligently. From my observations, many who feel this way often stay quiet. They are pressured by society and politics to fit in and say nothing. They may put on a mask when going in to see a doctor, but they won’t ask the medical staff to put one on, too.
The problem is, everyone’s health is at risk.
Thus, even on the chance it may offend someone, as it did in my experiences, we patients need to say something for the sake of ourselves and others.
The more we ask — no, demand — our healthcare practitioners wear masks, the more masks will be worn, curbing the spread of COVID and other contagious viruses.
Jade Wu is an attorney and the author of the foreign affairs memoir “Flash Points” (2017, State University of New York Press).