4 Tips for How to Deal With the COVID Skeptics in Your Life

Face masks save lives. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

By Page Leggett

November 30, 2020

Even after the US surpassed more than 250,000 American lives lost to COVID-19, there are still—somehow!—people who believe the virus is a hoax.

Thanksgiving is behind us now, and public health officials expect the coronavirus pandemic to worsen over the next few weeks. 

“The travel that has been done has been done,” Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, said on Sunday. “Having said that, we have to be careful now because there almost certainly is going to be an uptick because of what has happened with the travel.”

Yet, even after the United States surpassed a horrifying quarter of a million deaths due to COVID-19, and another 4 million cases in November alone, there are—somehow!—still Americans who believe the virus is a hoax. Jodi Doering, an ER nurse in South Dakota—which is experiencing an alarming rate of hospitalizations and deaths related to the coronavirus—recently garnered national media attention after tweeting about the patients she’s seen who’ve insisted the pandemic isn’t real.  

“I … can’t help but think of COVID patients … who still don’t believe the virus is real. The ones who scream at you for a magic medicine … all while gasping for breath on 100% Vapotherm. They tell you there must be another reason they are sick. They call you names and ask why you have to wear all that ‘stuff’ because they don’t have COVID because it’s not real.” 

So, what are folks who believe in science to do when we live among science deniers? 

Stop Us If You’ve Heard This One Before, But Masks Save Lives 

For starters, keep wearing your mask. 

Pandemic fatigue” is real, and it’s causing even some who believe in masks to let their guard down. When you wear a mask, you’re protecting yourself, your community and you’re modeling good behavior in the process—even if some people don’t pick up on your cues. 

“We’ve had people literally killed over asking someone to wear a mask,” said Catherine Troisi, Ph.D., an epidemiologist and associate professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Texas at Houston. “That’s just incomprehensible to me.” 

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Eventually—if maskers outnumber non-maskers—all but the most strident non-masker will fall in line. “Social norms do play a role,” Troisi said. “If most people are wearing masks—and you’re not—you feel like an outsider.” 

What’s interesting, Troisi pointed out, is that the United States has the largest percentage of people who bristle at mask-wearing. That might explain why we’ve done such a poor job of containing the virus. 

Don’t Be Afraid to Make a Hasty Exit When Confronted With a Crowd of Unmasked Strangers

Until more of us are willing to be minimally inconvenienced to benefit public health (as New Zealanders and South Koreans have done), your best best is not to linger in places where people are unmasked. 

“The best thing we can do is simply remove ourselves from [a risky] situation,” Troisi said. “If I went to a grocery store and saw people weren’t masking, I would tell the manager, ‘You’ve lost my business’ and leave.” 

“Having businesses say ‘No mask, no service’ (and enforcing the policy) would help,” she said. 

“It’s like smoking. Over time, it has become really inconvenient to smoke. You can’t do it at the movies, inside a restaurant, on a plane. And that has helped decrease our smoking rate.” 

“If we make it inconvenient for people,” she added, “they might start masking.” 

Stand Up to COVID Deniers—Even Those You Love

Doubting the severity of the coronavirus is—sadly—understandable, considering how people at the highest levels of government have told us it’s no bigs. (One of those purveyors of untruths also wondered about the efficacy of injecting disinfectant, and everyone agrees that was bad advice.) 

When faced with a friend or family member who insists on living life as if there’s not a deadly pandemic raging, try listening to their rationale. Ask why they believe what they do. Try to understand what has led them to their decision not to wear a mask or continue to gather in large groups. Encourage them to share their perspective.

Importantly, come at it from a place of love. Your misguided mom or Trump-loving brother really believe the virus is fake. They heard it from sources they trust. After hearing them out, gently tell them about other sources (CDC, WHO) that have nothing to gain by fabricating a health scare. Tell them you love them and don’t want to see them in the hospital or on a respirator.

You may also want to remind them that this pandemic is not just an “I” problem; it’s an “us” problem. In a pandemic, we’re not just responsible for ourselves. We’re responsible to each other. As Troisi pointed out: “You may be a healthy young person willing to take your chances. If you get infected, you’re not likely to die. But you could infect other people who might.” 

There are long-term effects to be concerned about, she continued. “It’s not just, ‘Either you’re unlucky and you die—or you’re fine.’ The virus hasn’t been around long enough for us to study its long-term effects. Even if your risk of dying is small because you’re a healthy 20-year-old, you may still have serious effects.”

Accept That You May Just Have to Keep Your (Physical) Distance 

If a loved one refuses to mask up, the safest bet is to limit your contact with them to phone calls and Zoom happy hours. Don’t “take one for the team” and put yourself at risk. Stay away, and explain why you have to.

“This is a serious infection that a quarter of a million Americans have died from,” Troisi said. “Not all of those were preventable, but a good portion of them were, had we controlled the pandemic better. “

Until the federal government implements a strategy that incorporates masking, effective testing, contact tracing and large-scale vaccinations, it’s up to each individual to do our part. So don’t be afraid to offend a stranger or hurt the feelings of someone you love. Lives depend on it.

READ MORE: Coronavirus FAQ: Holiday Travel, Stay-At-Home Orders, and Vaccine Questions, Answered


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