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SOS From the ICU: Why Are Some Americans Not Practicing Social Distancing?

Encouraging safe practices in a catastrophically self-absorbed society.

I was recently asked by a journalist: "Why are some people not engaging in social distancing given the risk to all of us, and what can we do about it?"

There are many reasons, but one of the major ones is this: People in American society are unused to deprivation. We have long promoted "rugged individualism," where individual rights are seen as more important than collective rights. Many of us have been conditioned to feel that our rights matter most, even when our behavior impacts others' rights.

We have a society that is catastrophically self-absorbed.

Those who serve in our military learn to be interdependent; they learn that we must come together because, sometimes, the good of the whole requires us to sacrifice our individual rights.

This is what our service members, veterans, and first responders do every day. Now, we have an army of frontline physical and behavioral health providers who are making these same sacrifices.

Meanwhile, we have shaped people to expect everything delivered to their door, immediately, with no personal sacrifice.

Americans are not accustomed to putting their own individual needs aside for the good of the whole. If we stand on the hill of our own rights, others will die—and we might, as well.

When I posted such thoughts on a Facebook page related to a Military Times podcast I host, I received this reply from a reader who is a military veteran and now an ICU nurse at the tip of the spear in our health care system.

This is what many of us need to hear right now:

This is a completely accurate description of what we are currently facing. I am a nurse who works in an ICU unit that is only taking COVID-19-positive patients at the moment.

To see the number of people who are waiting to be seen with severe symptoms is an absolute horror. My colleagues and I are not provided the right equipment to treat these patients. We were given one N-95 mask, which is typically supposed to be used once on each patient, and we are told to use it for two weeks straight.

Research has shown an N-95 mask can be used up to 4 hours before it stops doing its job. I work 13 hours per shift, 60-70 hours a week, using the same mask. The CDC recently came out with a statement urging health care professionals to bring scarves or bandanas from home, because it is better than nothing. Some of my colleagues are required to put garbage bags on themselves because there are no gowns left.

The amount of people going on ventilators is terrifying, and the thought that we are about to run out of ventilators and may have to soon play God and make a decision about who lives and who dies is even scarier.

Then, after a long, 13-hour shift, I go home, and I see crowds of people still walking outside because it's beautiful out. I see gyms inviting people to the park to complete group workouts together because the gyms were mandated to be closed.

After seeing all that, I return to another shift and hold the hand of an elderly man or a very young woman who had to die alone because we cannot allow visitors right now.

We are facing something Americans haven't had to face before. This situation is entirely new. People don't know how to act and don't understand how their actions are impacting others.

People aren't always getting accurate information on the news and aren't feeling the direct impact of their actions of not social distancing to understand why it is so important. There are many people stepping up to the plate, and many who are listening.

But where I live, we have a very high number of COVID-19 positive patients, and I can tell you from personally witnessing this firsthand that there are many people who are trying to challenge authorities, who personally believe they cannot catch the virus because they are young (completely false), and who aren't thinking about anyone but themselves and their "boredom."

It is an absolute slap in the face to us because the longer people don't listen, the longer we are putting ourselves at risk by working and being exposed, and the longer we are away from our families.

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