N95 Face Mask, COVID-19 face mask
(Photo by Will Dabbs)

This is Part II in our “Front Lines” series with Dr. Will Dabbs. Be sure to check out Part I “What’s It’s Really Like on the Front Lines Fighting COVID-19” before reading on.

Well, we’re one full week into the COVID era, and already I despise it. How many of us even knew what an N95 was two weeks ago? It sounds like an Interstate highway. Now this wretched little N95 face mask is part of my daily uniform.

Driving Down the N95

SARS-CoV-2 is breathtakingly contagious. Per the CDC, if you have close contact with an infected patient you should self-isolate for 14 days even if you have no symptoms. However, apply that axiom to health care workers and every physician, nurse, and lab tech in America heads straight to the house for two weeks’ worth of Netflix-binging quality time and fighting boredom.

The CDC’s answer to this sticky quandary is to suggest that health care workers can continue to serve so long as they are wearing a mask, goggles, and gloves. The procedure for swapping that stuff out is tedious but designed to keep us from all succumbing to this pestilence in short order. The availability of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is much in the news of late.

Personal Comfort Is a State of Mind

Such was the sort of platitude that the sadists at Fort Benning used to spout when we all thought the misery just couldn’t get any more miserable. Mastery of snide little ditties designed to reliably make horrible situations a wee bit more horrible is one of the few marketable skills I retain from the military. In the COVID era, that means you have to acclimate to the infamous N95.

I’m not sure who exactly the N95 was designed for, but it wasn’t any human being I’ve ever met. I’ve worn three different sorts thus far, and they all pinch my nose and squeeze my face mercilessly. I appreciate that this is kind of the point, but that doesn’t diminish how much it sucks to wear one of these diabolical rascals throughout a 12-hour stint at work. The argument could be made that such inconvenience is better than a disease that can kill you, but that smacks of Fort Benning verisimilitude as well.

Combine the N95 with these massive bug-eyed goggles and my obligatory reading glasses and you have the chemical formula for physical comedy. There I sit looking like some deranged maniacal spaceman trying to connect emotionally with a terrified patient. Every time I breathe my goggles fog up rhythmically in time with my respiration. It wouldn’t do to play poker thusly adorned.

And then there are the children. Kids hate doctors anyway. Now have the malevolent entity who wields the almighty power over intramuscular injections look like a creature from a B-grade sci-fi horror movie, and any hope of a positive doctor-patient relationship is pretty much doomed. I tried drawing a funny monkey face on mine and ended up exuding more of a rabid cannibal vibe.

This Is America!

I recently read a breathless screed from somebody someplace railing that there was no excuse that there should be a shortage of PPE in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet. Most such venomous diatribes typically hallucinate up some nexus to President Trump’s many manifest failings both real and imagined. Dude, chill out and look past the moment. Nobody anywhere saw this coming.

I took a gander around my clinic. My gloves were made in Malaysia. My betadine swabs come from Israel. Also, my masks were birthed in a Chinese factory that has been shuttered for two months as our Asian pals battle dragons of their own. Here’s a news flash: We don’t make stuff like that anymore. And nobody cared at all 10 days ago.

Everybody likes cheap stuff, even rich people. Brand loyalty and patriotism look great on paper right up until that leaves less jingle in your pocket. The cell phone is arguably the most popular consumer product on the planet, and nobody in America makes cell phones. Like masks, gloves, and betadine swabs, they’re cheaper to manufacture overseas.


I have an acquaintance who owned a factory in China in the BC (Before COVID) era. Incidentally, what will historians eventually call this remarkable event? BC used to mean “Before Christ” back when people still believed in God. Now we use BCE (Before the Common Era) as though a Gregorian reference to that most remarkable itinerant carpenter somehow threatens our intellectual independence. Methinks this might be part of the larger problem, but I digress.

This guy told me that his workers were safe and well-paid. They worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, and seldom complained. If one of them quit, there were a dozen more waiting for the job.

They weren’t busy suing their employers when they slipped getting out of their cars in the parking lot. They also didn’t have billboards festooned with vapidly grinning trial attorneys sprouting up behind every stately oak. There are other factors, of course, but somebody is paying for all those billboards. If you lumped America’s trial attorneys into a single entity they make more money than Microsoft ($200 billion versus $126 billion per annum—Google knows all). Get rid of such superfluous tripe or get over it. Those are our options.

This Is Indeed America!

At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack the United States Navy fielded seven aircraft carriers. Including the smaller escort carriers we ended the war about three years later having produced another one hundred sixty. For nearly a year we launched a new aircraft carrier almost every week. Trust me, given a little time we will not be hurting for PPE. It will be made in America, it will be fairly expensive, and it will be absolutely everywhere.

The hospital where I originally trained has put out a call for those with the requisite skills to produce cloth masks at home for use by staff until the commercial sorts catch up. I’d bet my 401K, or at least what’s left of it, that the end result will be some absolutely gorgeous masks in simply breathtaking quantities. After all, this is indeed America.

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