Wearing Masks in the time of Corona Virus

On May 24, 2020, The New York Times dedicated the newspaper’s front page to those who have died from COVID-19. Including no other information than first and last name, age, and city of the deceased, the newspaper offered a somber representation of the staggering loss from corona virus seen in the United States since the early days of March. While unable to publish an exhaustive list, The Times’ intent was to reflect the milestone of 100,000 deaths in the U.S. due to the virus.

Months have passed since The Times’ article was published. The numbers continue to rise at an alarming rate. On May 24, I read each of those names. I knew, while they were strangers to me, they were someone’s mother, teacher, school bus driver, friend, coworker, grandmother, and/or child. Each person on that list had a story and a family. While those narratives of love and loss in the time of corona are not mine to tell, I wanted to contribute what I could during this unprecedented time. What exactly that would become is still making its way through my keyboard.

As I watched the world move forward in the attempt at economic recovery and establishing a new normalcy, I also listened to the stories of real love and loss around me. This includes a collection of personal experiences from two nurses who share little relation except a cross-country dedication to service at all cost as well as the narrative of a man whose connection to COVID equates to the loss of a father. I braid these intimate stories together.

I do so thinking of this quote, “People don’t listen to statistics; they listen to stories.” I hope that people will listen to real tales of love and loss, worries and warnings, and make the choice to protect themselves and their neighbors not just because it is policy but because it is the right thing to do. Much continues to be clarified in the months of requisite change to how and where we live our daily lives. Yet the veritable truth is the days of living solely for oneself are over.

While two thousand miles apart, nurses Kristen Pérez and Jennifer Terry told similar stories in regard to the gradual but marked shifts occurring in their hospitals in the early days of COVID-19. A Los Angeles-based nurse, Terry described those early days in her hospital. In early March, it “slowly changed from ‘this is only happening in China’ to ‘ok, maybe it’s not just China’ to ‘maybe it’s everywhere” to ‘we’re not prepared for a pandemic and don’t have enough PPE to handle it’.” She explained, “It went from, ‘this isn’t my problem’, to being ‘this is a problem worldwide’.”

The inability for medical professionals to anticipate the virulence of the virus was not isolated to the West Coast. As a nurse in Chicago, Kristen Pérez explained that the full shift from pre-COVID to COVID-occupancy occurred when her hospital’s administration dedicated the entire seventh wing as the COVID floor. “At the worst,” Pérez said, “we saw 75-100 patients a day. That included the seventh wing, the 6th floor ICU, and we ended up closing down and taking over the pediatric ICU to use for additional adult COVID patient overflow.”

The rapid increase in patients was not only overwhelming but unnerving as many nurses and aides began to fear for their own safety. Some hospitals quickly implemented policies to protect the nurses; others did not. Pérez said, One day, we had a meeting, and the unit manager said, ‘I don’t want to see anyone wearing a mask’.” At that time, mask-wearing was a violation of hospital policy, but the Nurses’ Union in Chicago fought to get nurses protective gear.

In a matter of weeks, Pérez’s hospital policy shifted from, “Do not wear a mask even in the hallway” to “You should just wear a surgical mask when you are taking care of COVID patients” to “All people in the hospital would be provided a surgical mask.” By mid-April, Pérez explained, “All people in the hospital were provided a surgical mask and all patients were required to wear it while the nurse was in their room performing care.”

While hospitals started shifting policies to protect their employees and patients, many healthcare professionals were left to make challenging personal decisions. “One nurse had to send her two- or three-year-old daughter to live with her grandfather,” said Pérez. Others, like her, had to separate from family and friends after exposure to COVID patients.

With the deluge of patients and extended care that continues to tax the system, many healthcare professionals don’t even have time to process or grieve the loss of their coworkers. “As of [June, 11, 2020] two nurses, a surgical tech, and one nurse’s husband have died, and several hundred have contracted the virus from my hospital alone,” Pérez explained.

Words cannot capture the pain each practitioner has witnessed, but Pérez spoke of her first experience with a COVID patient. “I could see the fatigue of her opening her eyes and turning her head to look at me. Her voice was so weak, she could only produce a whisper. It looked tortuous and awful. It scared me to see her look and feel so bad.”

Stories like those told by Kristen and Jennifer serve as both a reminder that, while the young and physically fit may feel like this virus won’t reach them, as critically acclaimed writer and renowned director, Nelson George, states, “This virus is no joke.” Recently, Nelson wrote an article for Medium about his father. In our conversation, he explained the experience of watching his father, Elmer George, die due to COVID-related health complications.

As Nelson described, his father used to take his “Cadillac” motorized cart to the shop. One day, after making a trip the Bronx, Elmer came home and collapsed. After he was found alone in his apartment, Elmer was rushed to the hospital. When Mount Sinai admitted him, they diagnosed Elmer with COVID-19. As he also had diabetes, Elmer’s family knew, “This was going to be a problem.” Elmer eventually stabilized and was moved to a rehabilitation facility, but, when his blood sugar spiked, Nelson said, “The effort to stabilize him with COVID and the diabetes was too much.”

When the doctors didn’t believe Elmer’s health would improve, they allowed Nelson to visit his father in the rehabilitation facility. That afternoon, Nelson watched his father struggle “with air in his nostrils, but, despite the air, every breath was an incredible battle. He was fighting, fighting, fighting for every breath.” That evening, on April 25, 2020, Elmer George died from complications related to COVID-19 infection.

This corona virus has taken a toll on our most intimate relationships. It has ended businesses. And its effects have touched every sector of economics, politics, and health care. It has shown Americans the fissures and fractures in our healthcare system.

It has also clarified our ability to relate to and empathize with people we do not know personally. As we define the moral compass of this nation, this era has required us to reevaluate self-centeredness against collectivist tendencies. As Pérez explained, this is our “opportunity to give something of yourself to your fellow human. If everyone did something, when you pay your good deed forward, that can expand way more rapidly than Corona virus.”

The caveat is that, “Everyone has to participate.” Nelson seconded the sentiment as he stated, “This isn’t about your civil liberties; it is about being a part of society where people look out for each other. It’s not about you; it’s about being a responsible citizen.”

While these personal accounts are iterations of a collectively challenging and heartbreaking era, the time of corona is also the time of confused and confusing information. From conflicting news briefings from the executive branch to the sometimes aligned, sometimes splintered recommendations from the World Health Organization and the CDC, the volume of news circulating in regard to best health and safety practices is not exhaustive but exhausting.

Thus, where does the private citizen go for trustworthy information? Backing science over opinion, Pérez explained, “People are looking for things that agree with their own personal opinion, but science looks at things and removes personal opinion.”

“We all have preconceived notions in regard to how we think the world works. But scientific research teaches you to look at the world without your biases. You have researchers, doctors, and nurses who have dedicated their whole lives to the study and practice of science, and we are not making it up. Nurses are in the rooms with patients with COVID-19 and are watching them suffer. And they are watching their coworkers suffer and die. And that is not fake.”

To those who think COVID-19 isn’t real, I implore you to reach out to the healthcare professionals in your community. Listen to the stories of those who have seen the pain and suffering the corona virus has produced firsthand, and seek out empirically-based scientific research.

Pérez was asked what she would say to those who continue to think COVID-19 is either a hoax or won’t affect them. She replied that, while they risk their lives every day they go into work, if someone comes into the hospital because they are sick, “We are still going to help you. We are still going to try to save your life. We will still bring you whatever kind of juice you like that makes you feel better, and we will still give you a phone charger so you can call your mom.”

It seems the moral compass of our nation has become a topic of debate. In the time of corona it has largely, but not exclusively, hinged on binaries like economics or public health, getting things back to “normal” as quickly as possible or taking prudent, patient precautions to ensure the health and safety for all citizens. Yet the future of our nation depends on what we do now, how we treat each other, and how and how often we vote.

While science-driven data is a crucial component to making well-informed decisions for our children, parents and partners, neighbors, strangers, and ourselves, I have learned data doesn’t move the heart. Stories do.

Thus, in an era of corona virus, in an era of love and staggering loss, each of us can read the names on The New York Times’ front page. We may even individually or collectively mourn so much loss. We can also take personal responsibility to live nonviolently.

The tenets seem simple – wash your hands, wear a face mask, and stand six feet apart. But, as with yoga asana, philosophy, or meditation, the work is not in the teachings. It is – and always has been – firmly rooted in the practice.