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Social Graces: Here’s what to say if a friend stops wearing a mask in public

Hannah Herrera Greenspan, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Home and Consumer News

Q: What should you do if your friend who has been vaccinated stops wearing a mask in public?

A: I like to ask reasonably intelligent people questions that might help me better understand their decision-making. So my initial interaction would be something like this:

1) “I understand you were recently vaccinated. Is that why you’re no longer wearing a mask in public?” If the response is in the affirmative, I’d ask another question.

2) “Are you under the impression that since you’ve been vaccinated, you are no longer a risk for spreading or contracting COVID-19?”

Now here is where it would be important to have the latest facts from a reputable source (such as, but not limited to, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Independent of national policies, many states and cities have local policies, so it’s important to know those policies too.

To the second question, my friend might reply “Yes, I’m vaccinated, so I can’t contract the illness.”

To that I would say, “By getting vaccinated you have significantly lowered the possibility that you won’t contract COVID-19. However, you may already have COVID-19 but are one of those many people who exhibit no symptoms and, despite a vaccination, you could still be a risk for spreading it.”

But most importantly, I would say to my friend, “The virus is novel — it’s new — and there now appear to be many variants, some with much higher rates of transmission. Furthermore, the city of Chicago has a mask mandate.”

 

As a communication professor who specializes in health communication, I know it’s really important to listen. When I work with physicians on their communication skills, I emphasize listening first, followed by using what’s called, in the health literacy field, “plain language.” By being what I call an authentic listener — somebody who is genuinely interested in what someone has to say — you build trust.

And the other component of communication I really stress to clinicians is “avoid lecturing.” Instead, educate and let reasonably intelligent people come to their own conclusions. Now some might say that my replies above (new variants, Chicago’s mask mandate) are “lecture-y,” but I would say that by asking questions and listening graciously, I’ve built into this exchange a dialogue, rather than a top-down lecture.

— Jay Baglia, associate professor of health communication at DePaul University’s College of Communication

A: It’s great that the vaccine is reaching even more people, and so these situations will become common. While people who have been vaccinated are at lower risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract the virus that causes COVID-19, that doesn’t mean that others can’t catch the virus from them.

The vaccines approved for use right now stop the virus from entering the host’s cells (in this case, your friend), attaching themselves and spreading throughout the body (replicating). When the virus is turned away at the door, the vaccinated person is unlikely to become symptomatic or ill. Unfortunately, the science has yet to prove that a person who has been vaccinated cannot still infect others. Because answering this question is critical to informing us about when we can discard our masks, vaccine manufacturers are designing studies now to test whether vaccinated individuals carry live virus that can infect others.

Until we know that answer, I would remind my friend that not everyone has been vaccinated or will chose to vaccinate. Thus, it’s important to wear a mask to show everyone in the community that you care about protecting them from becoming ill. If that wasn’t convincing enough, I’d try humor: “Your face is lovely, but not lovely enough to die for. Put on a mask!”

— Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

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