Behind the Mask: Students, Staff and Faculty Share their Motivations for Masking on Campus

A student wearing a purple facemask in front of a tree with bright orange leaves.

November 23, 2022

As the weather grows colder and social activities move indoors, so do respiratory viruses like COVID-19 and seasonal influenza. And although masks are not currently required on campus, many members of our community are choosing to don them anyway.

To find out more about what motivates members of our masking community, we spoke to several individuals and invited students through the student newsletter to tell us more. We noticed that among those who mask, protecting others was a major motivation.

“We know that sometimes COVID-19 and other viruses can manifest without symptoms,” says first year MPH student Emily Huff. “With a mask, I can protect those around me.”

Others see masking as an accessibility issue.

“I wear a mask because I believe it’s the right thing to do,” says Heather Duncan, first year MPH student. “Many co-morbidities and risk factors for severe illness from COVID are invisible, like having a compromised immune system, for example. I think everyone has the right to receive an education in a safe environment regardless of health or disability status, and if masking makes that possible, it’s a small price to pay.”

And while some members of our community may not be at high risk themselves, many care for vulnerable people at home. School of Public Health Communications Manager Eirinn Marotta is masking to protect her husband and two-year-old son. Her husband has a health condition that affects his lungs, one which may also affect their child: “I continue to mask as it's a great way for me to continue to protect my son's health, and the health of the many family members of our SPH community who may be more vulnerable, too.”

Tristan Sharratt, who is completing the Fellowship in Applied Public Health, is also masking to protect family members: “I have a 6-week-old son and my father-in-law is currently on hospice. Either of them getting COVID could result in complications that would drastically impact my family. I have worn a mask in these situations for the past two and a half years; wearing it longer will not hurt me.”

Though you may not think you know anyone with a health condition that makes them vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19, simply being above the age of 50 increases your risk of hospitalization or death. Co-morbidities like diabetes, being overweight or obese, and having been diagnosed with a mental health disorder can also increase the likelihood that you will become seriously ill from COVID-19, even if you are vaccinated and boosted.

Finally, long COVID remains a serious concern for many given its often debilitating symptoms, and each infection poses a risk of between 7 and 30 percent of developing the condition regardless of vaccination status. In fact, recent studies have suggested that vaccination may not substantially reduce risk of long COVID, and the specific risk factors for this condition are not yet well understood.

Wearing a mask is an easy way to protect yourself as well as others. Second year MPH student Anne Pysnik wears her mask on campus to ensure that she doesn’t miss out on important events: “I don't want to get sick and miss out on events that I have been looking forward to! I also don't want to make my roommate, friends or family sick and have them miss out on something they are looking forward to.”

Not wanting to miss class and having to make up exams and projects is another great reason to start wearing a mask now, especially as the end of the semester approaches.

Many faculty are also choosing to wear masks on campus as the winter holidays approach. Dr. Alvaro Carrascal of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics is confident that masks are a great tool for reducing the risk of disease transmission.

“In the last couple of years, there have been several studies confirming that wearing a mask reduces the risk of transmission. Wearing a mask, isolating when sick and getting vaccinated are proven steps to prevent serious disease, hospitalization and death due to COVID-19," he says.

Tomoko Udo of the Department of Health Policy, Management and Behavior would like to see masking remain as a tool to prevent disease in the future: “I hope to see that mask wearing as needed will stay as part of common disease prevention practice on our campus and community.”

As a health care worker himself, Sharratt believes that we should all be prepared to change our behavior as we head into the winter months.

"While there is a clear cohort of folks who do not mask, I believe that this is out of convenience rather than direct opposition to the concept. If we had a COVID surge next month, I believe we would see a significant increase in mask usage among students, faculty and staff,” he says.

Free disposable masks are available in multiple locations on the Health Sciences Campus, including the main lobby, the Graduate Resource Center, and the student lounge. If you would like to share your thoughts on masking with the campus community, send your comments to [email protected].