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Health Matters: To mask or not to mask?

Joanne Rose is a retired nurse with 35 years of experience in public health, health promotion and protection. She lives off grid in Stephenville, on her farm with her husband Tom, and is lucky enough to be surrounded by family. Health perspectives shared in this column are meant to inspire and inform, but not to replace the advice of your regular healthcare professional.

As of Tuesday, August 10, 2021, wearing of a mask in Newfoundland is no longer mandatory. Many are celebrating this announcement with a sigh of relief. Then again, many are people hesitant to go there.

This announcement comes at a time when the number of cases in this province remains very low. Our people and communities are well covered with one vaccine and reaching for the same high coverage for the second vaccine. The new cases we see announced are mostly related to travel and our COVID testing and screening recommendations remain in place. Those are all good things.

It is important to note that the recommendations do not apply to everyone, nor do they apply to every circumstance. If an individual , or someone in their household is elderly or immunocompromised, even if they are fully vaccinated, you may want to keep their risk low. That individual should consider keeping a mask on in public spaces when physical distancing cannot be maintained. If you are travelling, or in a circumstance where you do not know all of the people in a crowded area, you should consider keeping your mask on. To some it seems like we are told to take your mask off and also to keep your mask on. It all comes down to risk and using your judgment.

And of course, we are all looking at what is happening in the rest of Canada and in the United States. We see the rise of COVID cases in some provinces and states. We see hospitalizations on the rise as well. That is certainly cause for concern. However, when you look at this situation more closely, there are a few things you should know. The University of Michigan Epidemiologist and Infectious Disease Physician, Dr Laraine Washer, MD, recommends that if you are vaccinated and have a healthy immune system, you are highly protected from contracting COVID-19. The cases reported in vaccinated people are rare and are mostly mild, therefore not requiring hospitalization. That is both very comforting and reassuring.

In our own province, Dr Cathy Donovan, a retired Medical Officer of Health, was recently interviewed on CBC Radio. She has given some clear guidance on how to interpret these recommendations. As she stated, there are certainly circumstances where common sense would tell us that a mask is appropriate to wear. The environments considered to be risky are ones where there are likely to be crowded spaces, where there are people that you don’t know and where you wouldn’t know what their immunization history would be: places like crowded shopping centers or entertainment events.

After all these months of mask wearing, many people are still very comfortable with continuing to wear their mask. Certainly, this week in Stephenville and area shops, I have noticed that more people are wearing their masks than not. There are some stores that have not yet removed their request for masks inside their store. Indeed, they will approach their customers and offer a mask if they do not have one on. And in some larger events I have seen the masks are still in use. I can appreciate that. Many people have varying levels of risk and anxiety.

These past twelve to eighteen months have been very challenging to say the least. Anxiety driven by the heightened awareness of risk, the sense of loss of control of your environment, and the constant media barrage of every case, every circumstance and every implication has been unending. Dealing with that level of anxiety is challenging.

There are many ways to reduce your anxiety. As Dr. Donovan indicates, go at your own pace. Do what you are comfortable with and wear your mask when you think it is appropriate. Be aware that other people may not have your same perception of risk or feeling of comfort.

Try to look at doing some of the things that may offer you increasing comfort with getting out and leaving your safe place. Go for a walk or a hike. There are many local trails and attractions. Try a walk around the beautiful trail at Ned’s Pond in Stephenville. Take a hike on Danny’s Trail at the Gravels. Invite a friend you haven’t seen in a while to come for a visit. Or take a drive with a friend for coffee and cheesecake in Mainland at Tea by the Sea. Go for a drive to the beach. The views at Hidden Falls in Sheaves Cove are spectacular. Take in a round of golf at Harmon Seaside Links. Try out the new disk golf in Blanche Brook Park. You can borrow the disks (which I still call Frisbees) from the Town of Stephenville. Take in the sun and sand at Black Bank. Search for sea glass in Boswarlos. Make a list and start with just one or two of these things, there is so much in our area to see and enjoy.

Anxiety is the mind and body’s reaction to stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situations. Anxiety is a useful, normal response to a new or atypical event or encounter. Anxiety is good when it assists you to work through a new situation. It is bad when it continues for an extended period, when you find yourself with endless sleepless nights, when you pace the floors with your worries so great you are unable to relax, when it continues unresolved. If you are finding your anxiety is keeping you isolated, reach out and talk to someone. Talk to a friend or family. Visit the Doorways program in Stephenville by calling 643-8740 to arrange a call or visit. And if you are in crisis don’t hesitate to call the Mental Health Crisis Line 1-888-737-4668.

In the end, you can make your own choices about your personal sense of risk and your decisions about mask wearing. The best advice is to rely on your own sense of risk. What you do and don’t do is all a matter of personal choice.

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