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There are thousands of people who agree with Rice, and health experts shake their heads as they acknowledge those puzzling views are powering COVID-19 infection rates, especially in parts of the rural Midwest.
The potentially deadly disease is spreading unabated and threatening to overwhelm hospitals. It’s not that people in Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, and elsewhere don’t realize their states are leading the nation in new cases per capita. It’s just that many of them aren’t especially concerned. Wayne County, home to 6,400 people in southern Iowa, has the state’s second-highest case rate, yet its public health administrator, says mask-wearing is rare.
The public health director in Jones County, Iowa, said [even now] that her rural county has the state’s highest virus rate, people have opted not to make any changes, such as wearing masks: “They don’t think it’s real,” she said, and “they just don’t want to wear a mask because we’ve made it a whole political thing at this point.” Claire Gillespie of Health.com writes:
Denial might be at the root of some people’s refusal to wear a face mask—and it’s an extremely powerful defense mechanism. “Denial kicks in automatically when someone can’t handle the depth and seriousness of a situation,” Dr. DeSilva explains. “The COVID-19 crisis is traumatizing, and many psychological defenses will arise to help individuals cope. Denial leads to avoidance and then leads to not hearing the facts, which in turn leads to not following safety measures to prevent the thing they fear. It is a vicious, unhelpful cycle, which ultimately contributes to the problem.”
Feeding into this denial is a growing number of conspiracy theories and other out-there ideas about the pandemic. “Wild ideas can get traction and get a following on social media,” says Dr. Seide. “There are voices out there questioning the data we are being presented with regarding the prevalence and severity of COVID-19; it has become something of a movement. There are people literally denying the virus, and there are people who are subconsciously in denial about the virus.”
In part, some of those views are hard to fight because many people have no symptoms and most of those who do get sick recover quickly. Cases and the death toll are rising dramatically, yet these anti-maskers continue with that fatalist majority: “I don’t want to catch it. But if I get it, I get it. That’s just how I feel.”