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  • Valerie Brooke, MD

Pandemic Traveling and Gym Workouts

This past weekend I traveled via plane for the first time in two years, since before COVID-19 transformed my way of life and leisure. I ventured to Seattle to see my daughter, who lives in the city where the outbreak in the US first started in the spring of 2020, with evidence of the first case appearing in February, 2020. To say it was odd to get on a plane during a pandemic does not capture the awkwardness I experienced. First, the Reno airport at 5:30 am was busy, something I had never experienced before and had usually boasted to my friends that you could show up just before your flight, have minimal wait to get through security, and be on your way without wasting time in lines. Not this time. The snake-like partitioned rows, which I had always seen and thought were never ever used, were completely full, with travelers spilling out into the lobby. Despite signs on the walls and marks on the floors, the six-foot distance recommendation was definitely NOT practiced. Everyone had a mask, although many wore it below their noses, again, despite signs everywhere that stated masks needed to cover both mouth and nose. “Should I say something?” I wondered to myself, though I listened to my instinct to keep quiet.


When I got to the gate, I saw that every other seat had signs recommending not to sit there, and once again, to keep six feet distance from other passengers. The gate area wasn’t yet full of travelers, as it was early. Out of habit, I always arrive early to my flights, pandemic or not. I’d rather sit and read a book than stress out that I might miss my plane. Although now in retrospect, maybe the stress of running late would have been less than the stress of possibly catching COVID from people not following the guidelines! I sat down and took out my book to read until I was distracted by a man two seats down from me coughing under his mask. All the people around me looked up at him in wide-eyed concern, and I wondered how he could have said NO to the COVID screening questions that were asked when we checked into our flight. He continued to cough a dry non-productive cough, possibly with an upper respiratory infection. As the stares continued, he finally was so uncomfortable he got up and walked away.


I stood out from the crowd with my tightly sealed N95 mask as well as my reading glasses. I only saw one other person, out of hundreds in line, who also had a N95 mask plus a face shield. As a healthcare worker, I was fortunate to get vaccinated in early December 2020. I am highly unlikely to get infected, however, according to the CDC, a small percentage of vaccinated persons will still get COVID-19. I have taken care of one patient at the rehab hospital in the last several months who got infected with the virus after he had his two vaccine shots, so I have seen first-hand that this can and does happen. That is why I wore my N95 mask the entire plane trip, never removing it, and I tried not to touch any surfaces. Bonus of wearing the mask? I didn’t have to have superficial conversation with the person sitting next to me, who, of course, was not even six inches away. “How can airlines sit people closer than six feet?” I wondered. Early on in the pandemic airlines kept the middle seat open, but no longer, as making money is much more important.


Fortunately, I’m so used to wearing a mask, including the N95, all day at work, it really wasn’t that uncomfortable to keep the mask on. When the flight attendants came down the aisle offering up snacks and drinks, I wondered how this also followed CDC guidelines. Sure, they all had gloves and masks on, but there was way too much hand touching going on for me to feel comfortable accepting anything. I still wear gloves at work, and only elbow bump the family members that come to visit their loved ones. I did have an awkward moment when meeting my daughter’s boyfriend for the first time. Do I shake his hand? Elbow bump him? He is vaccinated as is my daughter, and they don’t socialize with any non-vaccinated friends. He put his hand out, I shook it, but reflexively looked around for some hand sanitizer afterwards.


In addition to my return to travel, two weeks ago I returned to the gym so that I could start swimming laps again in preparation for a short triathlon this summer. There was hardly anyone at the gym, there were signs and glass partitions, hand sanitizer stations, everyone in masks, every other work-out machine with a posted sign saying not in use due to social distancing guidelines. That was a relief, and honestly, there just weren’t enough people working out at 5 am to get closer than six feet anyway. The weight training class I went to was a bit challenging, and not just because I was out of shape from doing less high intensity training during the pandemic. It was the mask. It wasn’t impossible to get through the workout breathing hard, but it was uncomfortable. And no need to wear a mask in the pool, as the chlorine kills everything anyway!


I had just gotten comfortable with “working out with a mask in the gym” routine, when I arrived yesterday and saw the glass partitions gone, the signs gone, and no one was wearing a mask. Instead, there was a small posted announcement that per the governor, vaccinated persons no longer have to wear a mask inside. Hmmmm…..I kept my mask on and walked to the dressing room, noticing that I was the only one still choosing to wear a mask. I went up the stairs to the weight class, saw the usual morning troupe, all without their masks. I still kept my mask on, until we started the class, as we were all six feet away. I realized that others might think I wasn’t vaccinated since I was the only one in the entire gym wearing a mask. I decided I didn’t care what others thought. There is no way to know who is vaccinated and who isn’t, so to protect myself and my patients, I will continue to wear my mask in public places. Until when? Like many questions that have arisen during the pandemic. I really don’t know. And I’m okay with not knowing.

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