COVID-19: Social Hell for Colorado Woman Who Can't Wear a Mask

COVID-19: Social Hell for Colorado Woman Who Can't Wear a Mask
Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash
Call her Gloria — a pseudonym we're using in lieu of her real name, which she asked that we omit. After all, she's self-conscious enough about her situation as it is, and doesn't want to invite online ostracism.

Why does she fear being criticized? Because, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she can't wear a mask.

If she could, Gloria would definitely wear a facial covering in public, since she has a number of serious health conditions that make her extremely vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, including, by her account via email, "COPD [Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], asthma and AFib" — atrial fibrillation, defined as a heart rhythm disorder causing an often rapid and irregular beat.

And that's not all. "I also have a mechanical mitral heart valve," she reveals. "So both of these combined together make me a poor candidate to wear a mask, unless I want to risk a stroke or a heart attack."

She's not in poor health because she's elderly: "I am young," she states simply.

Gloria lives in Sterling, a town on Colorado's eastern plains where mask use is spotty at best. And while she confirms that no business owners have demanded that she don a mask, she's been put in the position of sharing details of her diagnoses on numerous occasions in ways that made her deeply uncomfortable.

"At Walmart, an employee stands outside the doors with a box of disposable masks, and they offer you one as you're going inside," she notes. "I actually asked to speak to one of the managers of Walmart about my situation, explaining why I cannot wear a mask. Even though HIPAA rules state I do not have to disclose my medical information, I chose to do so, as I needed to make him aware of my condition."

In addition, she continues, "I have had one very outspoken older woman, in Walmart, who started to berate me for not wearing a mask. So once again, I found myself having to disclose my personal medical information to a total stranger, which is absolutely none of her business. After I explained myself, I waited for an apology, but instead, she chose to comment that she 'suffers from medical problems too,' and I 'needed to get over myself.'"

This brusque advice was particularly painful, given Gloria's previous experience with facial coverings. "I tried early on, when it was announced we needed to wear masks, to wear one," she recalls. "And it caused my AFib to kick in. I had to have my heart shocked, again, which is not a cheap procedure, even with health insurance."

The statewide mask order issued by Colorado Governor Jared Polis in mid-July makes it clear that Gloria's doing nothing wrong. One passage exempts "individuals ten (10) years old and younger; or individuals who cannot medically tolerate a face covering."

Every time she buys groceries or picks up medication from a pharmacy, Gloria is risking her life. "My mechanical heart valve is a magnet for any kind of virus or bacteria," she points out. Given that situation, she's even more frustrated by the reactions of some people when they see her with her nose and mouth exposed.

Referring to others with respiratory conditions, she says, "I feel like we all have to disclose our personal medical info to strangers, over and over again, in order to explain ourselves. That is definitely a violation of my rights. I would certainly never ask a total stranger to disclose their medical info to me, although I am expected to. Because there is no other way for me to explain why I'm not wearing a mask."

Click to read Colorado's statewide mask order.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts