A neighbor’s preschooler brought RSV home to her newborn, and I got a glimpse of their stress, their terror from a few blocks away, via texts. I offered what support I could, but mostly felt helpless. Across the country, pediatric ICUs are at capacity, and countless preschools and day care centers have had to close because of RSV, Covid, flu — pick your virus, really — run rampant.
As the news has worsened this season, I've worried more and more about friends and strangers who cannot exhale right now. People with newborns or immunocompromised kids at home, for whom these viruses would be a life-or-death emergency. I'd see a mom wearing a brand-new baby in a crowded grocery store, and feel her fear.
I know her fear, because last year it was my fear. Last fall, I had a newborn at home. She was too young to be vaccinated against Covid or the flu, and I held her tight and held my breath. Now, both she and her older brother have the full complement of Covid shots and their flu shot, and I am starting to remember how to exhale.
Or I was, until I lay in bed the other night, with thoughts of my friend's newborn (and his less-than-ideal oxygen levels) swirling in my brain. I doomscrolled past a tweet mentioning a certain “four-letter word,” a thing most of us have at home that could be a good way to combat the current viral clusterf*ck. I felt actual relief as I realized that I had an easy way to help sitting in my glove box. “Oh yeah — masks!” A light bulb, a tool. The next day, I masked up at the grocery store, and I asked my husband — who'd run out of the Kf94s he likes — to reup and consider masking again in public, indoor, crowded places. We’re leaving it up to our 5 year old — I lack the will to force him to wear a mask these days — but if we’re masked, he usually opts to mask up, too.
We’re not masking everywhere, and not all the time. Masking doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Call our approach targeted masking or strategic masking — I like to think of it as empathy masking. Bringing masks back into our daily lives this time feels different. It feels empowering. It’s “Oh yeah, I’m not helpless.” It is not March of 2020. We have learned something. We know a lot about masks and the efficacy of masking. We know that they do decrease the likelihood of viral transmission. I could mask up and at least know that whatever disgusting virus happens to be giving me a constant runny nose right now — and god knows we've had an endless stream of them this fall — wouldn't be immediately transmitted to her baby.
So exactly what is a not all-or-nothing approach to using masks? Our simple rule is that we generally wear them in crowded, public places such as grocery stores, coffee shops, and museums. I’d wear one outside if I was in a tightly-packed crowd. We’re going to wear them at all the holiday events we go to that include people beyond our immediate circle of friends and family where it's easy to wear them, like riding the local Christmas train, at the neighborhood gingerbread house party.
I am also selfishly motivated to try to stay healthy so all of our holiday plans — my son’s birthday festivities and Christmas gatherings with Great Grandma — can go forward as planned.
Look, I know many of you — of us — are really, truly over it. Donning masks again may feel, on a gut level, like going backwards. The trauma of these past few years is very real. But, we’re also the biggest brained mammals on the planet and cleverly using tools is kind of our thing. We know this works. Let’s exercise our minds, and our capacity for compassion, and put on our masks until this surge has passed. Newborns are helpless. Most of us are not.
I appreciated every masked face I encountered last year when I had a newborn at home, and I am so grateful to be through those scary days. I am paying it forward this winter — to the moms, to the pediatric ER doctors and the sick kids they save, to the brand-new babies. Join me.