I work in a small, two-physician medical practice and we have been flooded with coronavirus these past few weeks, with questions, testing and caring for our active COVID-19 patients. We are working hard trying to figure out how to care for our patients while also staying safe. The virus has finally come to Maine with aggressive force. Our staff are doing amazing work. One has been ill with the virus, and is now thankfully recovering, and almost all of us have needed to quarantine after an exposure. Every day brings new challenges. Thus, in the midst of this when I hear about mask mandate protests, I am frankly confused. I am trying, truly, to understand the viewpoints of others.

So, this is my question: We know that masks are uncomfortable and annoying, but are simple, safe and easy to use. We know they save lives by making it so we do not inadvertently spread the virus to someone else, and we now also know that they protect the wearer. They help keep our schools open, and our economy in the best condition possible right now. So, I am trying to understand. Each day as I drive to work, I pass through a few annoying stop signs and am frequently left wondering how traffic laws are different from mask mandates. I stop at the stop sign even when no one is around, and I drive the speed limit even though I would prefer not to. These are small things we do to help our society.

For that matter, to use an extreme example, I wonder how drunken-driving laws are different from mask mandates. We have drunken-driving laws because we all know that drunken drivers kill people. We do not want the drunken driver to die, but we especially do not want that driver to kill anyone else. We are not, as a society, willing to allow the drunken driver a personal choice to make his or her own decision. I am not in any way saying that those who do not wear masks are the same as drunken drivers, but not wearing that mask literally puts others around you – your neighbors, friends and fellow Americans – at risk of death. It is that simple.

So I am trying to understand, still.

Here is one difference, with the below numbers directly from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a source I trust. In the U.S., 29 people die each day in “motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver,” a sad statistic. (This includes the intoxicated driver.) Over 100 people die each day overall from motor vehicle crashes. On Nov. 14, 2020, the day before I wrote this column, 1,252 Americans died from COVID-19. This number, unlike the other two, is increasing.

Having been a physician for 30 years, I have many patients of all viewpoints, and I can hear some of them now questioning my CDC data. How do we know they are accurate? We don’t, but I trust them. I do not personally know any friend or patient who has died from an alcohol-impaired accident, but I believe it happens. Conversely, I do know patients and friends – no one very close yet, but real Maine people I know, whose names and faces I see right now in my mind – who have died from COVID-19. The CDC has made some errors this past year, I believe, but I’ve been relying with success on their data for my entire career, and like an old friend who makes a mistake, I am ready to allow their small missteps.

I can also hear my patients, all wonderful people, telling me, as they do, that masks aren’t proven to help. But they are. The same reliable sources that have taught me since 1986 when I entered medical school that hypertension should be treated, that diabetes causes vascular disease, that cancers can shorten your life, tell me that mask wearing works. I am going to have to trust that for now.

So, as a physician, I am trying to understand, as I drive to work, why anyone would refuse to wear a mask but agree to try to follow the speed limits and not go through a red light. Please explain.

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