When the Public Won’t Wear Masks

Since federal and state mask mandates have been lifted in the United States, much of the general public has chosen to forgo masking.24,25

Tweet: I'm a cancer patient. The positivity rate in my town is now 16.5%. I mask every time I have to go out. Usually my son and I are the only ones wearing masks. It's so disheartening.


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Dr Shanahan is part of multiple patient communities and has had many discussions with community members about how a lack of masking is detrimental to patients with cancer.

“We are angry, and we’re disheartened,” Dr Shanahan said, adding that it seems as though the general public doesn’t care about cancer patients and other people who are vulnerable to severe outcomes of COVID-19.

“They say, ‘You don’t want to get it, you just stay home,’” Dr Shanahan said. “I think there’s a lot of anger in our community at the fact that people won’t do something so simple as to wear a mask.”

“For many people with cancer, we’ve really put our lives on hold,” Dr Shanahan explained. “I have a disease that’s going to kill me eventually, which is already very isolating. Then with the pandemic, just when it seems like things are improving and I think maybe I can start traveling again and doing things again, mask mandates are dropped and infection rates go up.”

Tweet: I'd like for my husband & I to get our lives back. He has cancer, gets chemo & has other health issues. We don't go to restaurants or the gym or anywhere except doctors, Infusion center. & I am required to go to the office where I'm the only one wearing a mask.

Cancer Patients Harassed by Anti-Maskers

Cancer patients have reported being harassed and even assaulted by anti-maskers when trying to access care or when going about their daily lives.

In July 2021, Vice News published an article about a protest outside a cancer center, during which a patient with breast cancer was reportedly “sprayed with bear mace, physically assaulted, and verbally abused” by protestors.26

Tweet: The anti-vaccine/mask protests at the cancer center entrance was worse for my husband and I. On his chemo day. Shameful.

Dr Shanahan has also had negative encounters with anti-maskers because she wears a mask in public.

“I have had people calling me a ‘sheep’ and rolling their eyes at me,” she said. “I will stop them and say, ‘You don’t know whether I am immunocompromised. You don’t know whether I have COVID and I have my mask on to protect you. You don’t know whether I have an elderly person or kid under 5 at home. So how is my mask hurting you?’”

Tweet: What about people accosting my cancer survivor mom at the grocery store for still wearing hers? My point is, it's not as simple as saying, "Just wear a mask. No one cares" when there are a lot of peopl ein the community who are obviously bothered enough to harass others about it.

Jon Gluck, who has been living with multiple myeloma for almost 2 decades, has also experienced “a few incidents” related to mask wearing, where he lives in New York City.

“If I’m in a crowded indoor space and very close to somebody, and they don’t have their mask on, unfortunately, I need to speak up,” Gluck told Cancer Therapy Advisor. He added that he doesn’t like to mention his cancer when requesting that people mask around him, but he does bring it up if the person is reluctant to put on their mask.

“Even in the cases where it’s gotten contentious, ultimately, people have done it,” Gluck said. “They’re just not happy about it.”

“Here in New York, we had a period when COVID infection rates and hospitalizations and deaths had dropped to a reasonably low level,” Gluck continued. “And again, understandably, people just were very eager to unmask at that point; they were sick of it, and who can blame anyone?”

Gluck wrote an article for The Washington Post in which he shared his experience and asked for others to understand that immunocompromised people are at higher risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.27 The article was published in January of this year. Less than a month later, New York State lifted its indoor mask mandate.28

“That’s when things started getting a little trickier for those of us who are immunocompromised because we would love to take off our masks,” Gluck said. “But it just is not as safe for us to do that as it is for other people.”

“It’s difficult for people who are immunocompromised because there’s just a lot less masking overall and a lot less precaution in general,” Gluck said. “This is exactly the world I anticipated when I wrote that article.”

Disclosures: None of the interviewees declared relevant disclosures.

References

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16. Coronavirus resource center. Houston Methodist. Accessed July 5, 2022.

17. Visitor information & guidelines. UnityPoint Health. Accessed July 5, 2022.

18. Important information about COVID-19 for patients. Florida Cancer Specialists. Updated March 28, 2022. Accessed July 5, 2022.

19. Mask guidance. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated March 21, 2022. Accessed July 5, 2022.

20. How do I prevent and prepare for COVID-19? Florida Department of Health. Updated July 2, 2022. Accessed July 5, 2022.

21. Collins AP, Service BC, Gupta S, et al. N95 respirator and surgical mask effectiveness against respiratory viral illnesses in the healthcare setting: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Am Coll Emerg Physicians Open. 2021;2(5):e12582. doi:10.1002/emp2.12582

22. Barros AJ, Sifri CD, Bell TD, Eby JC, Enfield KB. Effectiveness of elastomeric half-mask respirators vs N95 filtering facepiece respirators during simulated resuscitation: A nonrandomized controlled trial. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(3):e211564. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.1564

23. Clinical questions about COVID-19: Questions and answers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated June 8, 2022. Accessed July 5, 2022.

24. Markowitz A. State-by-state guide to face mask requirements. AARP. Updated June 28, 2022. Accessed July 5, 2022.

25. Order: Wearing of face masks while on conveyances and at transportation hubs. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated April 18, 2022. Accessed July 5, 2022.

26. Owen T. Breast cancer patient attacked by violent anti-mask protest outside clinic. Vice News. Published July 23, 2021. Accessed July 5, 2022.

27. Gluck J. This is a dangerous time in the pandemic for people like me. Don’t forget us. Washington Post. Published January 17, 2021. Accessed July 5, 2022.

28. Treisman R. New York lifts indoor mask mandate, with California and N.J. mandates also set to end. NPR. Updated February 9, 2022. Accessed July 5, 2022.

This article originally appeared on Cancer Therapy Advisor