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Clashing Over COVID?


Dr. Anna Chacon talks how to handle office clashes over coronavirus safety while keeping a professional relationship with co-workers.

Have you found yourself becoming increasingly frustrated with coworkers’ behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic? What about patients? As lockdowns are lifted, people who return to their workplace (as well as those who never left) are clashing over differing views about how to handle the pandemic. Some say others aren't taking it seriously while others say their coworkers are taking it too far.

We recently had a patient who sat in our lobby writing names down (from badges) and taking photographs of everyone who walked by who was not wearing a mask. A coworker in my office recently told her office mate, that she not only had to wear a mask at all times (even when documenting notes in her office), but she had to wear a face shield as well.

Where do you draw the line so that everyone is happy and works as a team towards the same goal while staying safe? The disconnect, combined with an election year and political influences, creates tension as coronavirus cases persist.

Tensions are on the rise as co-workers, physicians, and sometimes even patients argue over the “right” Covid-19 pandemic protections. It would be a lot easier to deal with the differences if there wasn’t so much discomfort, uncertainty, and evolving information. I have become accustomed to seeing at least one case a day of acne mechanica in my office due to face masks, which are mandated in many municipalities and places of work. In fact, here in Miami there are fines issued (up to $100 for individuals and $500 for businesses) and officers assigned to make sure people are wearing masks in public and outdoors at all times.

We recently had to tell a research fellow to work from home remotely as we were unable to meet the 6-foot guideline between desks. Although the CDC recommends 6 feet (~2 meters) to maintain physical or social distancing indoors and outdoors, recently published studies support a hypothesis of virus transmission over a distance greater than 2 meters (up to 10 meters) from an infected individual.

However, what if there is limited office space given such large distances proposed? What do you do?

Based on knowledge and epidemiological observation, it is very plausible for small viral particles to diffuse indoors covering distances up to 10 meters from the emission source, representing a form of aerosol transmission. This has been studied in Wuhan and institutions such as the University of Nebraska. Thus, the inter-personal distance of 2 meters is reasonable only in a setting in which everyone wears a face mask in daily life. Face masks are now required in most office spaces and places of employment, but even in these settings social distancing still applies. If you are so close to a coworker you can smell her gum, you may be too close for comfort (and safety).

Whether notes, emails, or friendly reminders to urge people to keep their distance, sometimes post-its reminding your coworkers of distancing guidelines may be interpreted as an “over-reaction” and rub people the wrong way. One coworker here went so far as to create a barrier with a string of paper clips lined up across the opening of her office to discourage visitors from venturing inside.

Still, not everyone feels comfortable voicing their opinions or speaking up. The bottom line is that everyone should feel like they are looking out for each other and protecting themselves while also striving for the common good. Others say steering clear of colleagues with whom you disagree is a safe option to avoid drama—in particular, staying 6 feet away from them at all times may dampen any offense that may arise. When people have their minds made up, sometimes you just have to pick your battles, as it is very difficult to change someone else’s behavior.

Another reasonable option may be trying to understand your colleague’s mindset and point of view instead of blindly demanding a sudden change in attitude. Some people have a different approach for different reasons—they may not know anyone affected by the virus, while others may have a vulnerable comorbidity that puts them at risk of complications. It’s better to use listening as a guiding principle rather than being dismissive, which is usually counterproductive in these cases.

Ground yourself in facts and evidence-based medicine for guidance and consider talking with your supervisor, manager, or medical director if rational communication with difficult colleagues seems impossible. In the meantime, try bonding with like-minded and supportive colleagues while being respectful of others.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Social Distancing: Keep a Safe Distance to Slow the Spread. Accessed August 13, 2021. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/social-distancing.html.

Setti L, Passarini F, De Gennaro G, et al. Airborne Transmission Route of COVID-19: Why 2 Meters/6 Feet of Inter-Personal Distance Could Not Be Enough. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(8):2932.

Asadi S, Bouvier N, Wexler AS, Ristenpart WD. The coronavirus pandemic and aerosols: Does COVID-19 transmit via expiratory particles? Aerosol Sci Technol. 2020;0(0):1-4. Published 2020 Apr 3.

Van doremalen N, Bushmaker T, Morris DH, et al. Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1. N Engl J Med. 2020;382(16):1564-1567.

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