As a medical student, you learn how to scrub for surgery, and after you’ve scrubbed, how to put on sterile gloves without contaminating them. You’re already wearing your surgical mask before you put the gloves on, because (does this sound familiar?) you don’t want to touch your face and contaminate your gloves. And of course, in the operating room you also wear shoe covers and head covers and sterile gowns, and there is a very organized and very rigid choreography of what is sterile and who is sterile and who is not. (Mind you, the mask itself is not sterile — you would not touch it once you have your sterile gloves on.)
And then you spend a little time, as a medical student in the operating room, terrified that you’re going to contaminate that sterile field; that in a room full of highly expert people (scrub nurses, circulating nurses, surgeons, anesthesiologists), all of whom have come to understand what is sterile and what is not, you are the trainee who will screw things up — and then you learn the rules, and you internalize them, and you come to feel a little more at home, a little more sure that you can help keep everyone safe — especially the vulnerable patient, who is the reason you are all there in the first place.
At the end of the 19th century, as surgeons understood the role of microorganisms in infection, they began wearing cloth masks in the operating room so that they would not infect their patients. By 1918, gauze masks were being used in hospitals to reduce the likelihood that infections would spread among the patients, and to protect the doctors and nurses.
Surgeons and scrub nurses and their operating room colleagues do incredibly precise and high pressure work for hours and hours while wearing masks. And when we watch them doing that — on videotape, in movie scenes — we probably all feel subliminally reassured by their masks. They’re concentrating, they’re following the rules, they’re working. When we say of any activity, well, it’s not brain surgery, we’re comparing that activity deprecatingly to something which is only ever done by people wearing face masks. We look at that masked neurosurgeon’s face, and we think, well, that’s brain surgery.
Like pretty much everyone else — including most doctors — I can’t claim any kind of prescience about the coronavirus epidemic. But as a pediatrician, I knew that masks were a good idea, even when the authorities were telling us not to wear them. Hospital-grade face masks help protect health care workers from infections — not perfectly, but they improve the odds. When a sick child in a clinic or a hospital is known to have a respiratory infection — let’s say, a baby hospitalized with respiratory syncytial virus, or R.S.V. — there will be signs all over the place telling everyone who comes into the room to wear a mask and gown and gloves. You don’t do this because R.S.V. is dangerous to medical personnel or family members — in adults, it usually causes mild common cold symptoms.