Dr. Jeff Kane: Motorcycles and masks
During my medical training, I rotated through a specialized ward on an upper floor of L.A. County Hospital. In its beds were young people — all males, as I remember — whose brains had been irreparably damaged in motorcycle accidents. None of these patients could walk. Several couldn’t move. One had been comatose since his accident two years earlier. They needed around-the-clock care the rest of their lives.
Imagine the expense. And who paid? Literally everyone, whether through taxes or rising insurance premiums. Even if their care were to be reduced to a barely conscionable minimum, the only alternative was to let these people die.
Alarmed at the costs, legislators drafted a helmet law. Opposition was immediate and furious: this is a free country; I can do what I like; you can’t make me. Against such passionate resistance, the proposal lay dormant for decades. Costs only grew, though, so California passed a mandatory helmet law in 1992. One election ad said, “It’s not to protect you. It’s to protect us.” The following year saw a 37% decrease in the number of motorcycle-related deaths in the state.
Today’s issue is COVID-19 masks. Ardent individualists that we are, we resist bureaucratic edicts: this is a free country; I can do what I like; you can’t make me. But as with motorcycle injuries, consequences extend well beyond the individual. It might be OK with you to get sick and maybe die, but contagion and the expense of your care — not to mention the grief of family and friends — will be experienced by everyone, one way or another.
COVID-19 infection is spread mainly through personal contact, often with carriers who have no symptoms, “asymptomatics.” Since no one knows who’s carrying virus, medical experts insist on masks for everyone.
Some of us don’t fully understand this. “How can I possibly be an asymptomatic carrier? I feel great.” Innumerable people have gotten the point a few days later, when they took to serious bed. We might learn if we’re carriers by getting tested. Where, then? When? Will my insurance pay? How long till I get my result? And what will my result mean? Aw, it’s too much work and confusion, so I’ll just assume I’m not a carrier.
That’s not a bad guess, since most people aren’t carriers, but it’s such a high-stakes game that wearing a mask at least expresses regard for my community.
So should we have a law? I’d encourage a healthier balance of rights with responsibilities, but please no laws until we’ve exhausted old-fashioned manners. A society that needs to legally command its members to care for one another is more damaged than from anything a pandemic can do.
Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.
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