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Avoiding COVID-19 when following the guidelines seems impossible

By now, we all know the drill: Maintain physical distance. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Avoid people who are sick and stay away from others if you are sick. While these measures may seem simple enough, they are not easy to keep up month after month. Yet they are likely to be with us for a while.

But what about those who cannot comply? Certain conditions can make the standard measures to stay safe during the pandemic seem impossible. At the same time, some of those likely to have the most trouble following the guidelines — such as older people with dementia — are at higher risk for illness and death if they do become ill. And the risk for spreading infection to others by not wearing face coverings, washing hands regularly, and observing physical distancing remains very real.

Mitigation efforts are harder for some than others

People who may have the most trouble complying with pandemic-related restrictions include those with

  • Dementia. Without constant supervision and reminders, people with cognitive problems may take off their masks or wear them incorrectly, and fail to maintain distance from others.
  • Breathing problems. Although for healthy people there is no evidence that commonly worn cloth masks lower your oxygen levels or raise your carbon dioxide levels, those who have lung disease (such as asthma, emphysema, or cystic fibrosis) may find it particularly uncomfortable trying to breathe through a mask.
  • Claustrophobia. Wearing a mask may make people with claustrophobia feel panicky or smothered. And this not a rare problem: claustrophobia is the most common phobia, affecting 5% to 10% of the population.
  • Depression and anxiety. For people who struggle with mood or excessive worry, concerns about one’s health and the health of loved ones, and the limitations placed on social interactions, may make these conditions worse. According to recent National Center for Health Statistics data, symptoms of anxiety or depression have more than tripled since this time last year.
  • Autism spectrum disorder. Difficulties with social skills, a need for routine, and a reliance on support services such as behavior or speech therapy are everyday challenges for many people with autism spectrum disorder. The pandemic has made these challenges even greater. A heightened sensitivity to touch and difficulty with nonverbal communication can make wearing a mask especially problematic.

Even the experts urging us all to wear face coverings to lower rates of illness and deaths recognize that some cannot comply. Still, there are steps that folks in these situations can take to reduce the risk of becoming infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 and spreading it to others.

What can be done?

There are no easy answers here. I know of at least one memory care center that has largely given up on requiring mask wearing for some of its residents (though staff are still required to wear them).

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Written by Shobha

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