“Wearing a mask is important. It is a sign of compassion”
Newbury optometrist, Dr Valarie Jerome, speaks with OT about the viral response to a Tweet after turning away a patient without a face mask
06 November 2020
In October, Newbury optometrist Dr Valarie Jerome posted a Tweet on her lunch break about turning away a patient who refused to wear a face mask during a sight test.
By the following morning, the post had more than 7000 likes and hundreds of comments. Alongside messages of support, Dr Jerome faced a backlash of verbal abuse from those opposed to the enforcement of mask wearing. Below Dr Jerome shares her experience.
We have a locked door policy at our practice. A woman came to the door and asked ‘Can I be seen for an eye examination without a mask?’ She didn’t say anything about an exemption. My assistant was a bit taken aback so she came to the consulting room to ask me. I was perplexed. Do people complain about the mask? Absolutely. It is part of the ongoing banter. But they don’t generally refuse to wear one. After a brief discussion, the woman left the practice.
I was looking at something on Twitter during my lunch break and wrote a simple statement saying that I thought I had my first anti-masker today. I don’t have that many followers and it is mostly people in the optometry industry, local Newbury people and my friends. I didn’t think anything of it.
At the end of the day, I happened to open up my Twitter again and it said that I had 500 likes on the comment. My assistant said ‘I think that might be going viral.’ Then I woke up the next morning and there was 7000 likes, hundreds of comments and loads of re-tweets. I was scrolling through, thinking I needed to write back to these people. Then I started seeing four letter words, things I had never been called in my life before. It was every derogatory and vile word that you can think of. I was called a sheep, a Nazi and a nasty woman. Someone left me a fake Google review after there was a call to action among the anti-masker groups to target my business. I was on two local radio stations about the viral tweet, a national radio station and BBC South Today.
My grandfather was disabled with polio and one of my best friends here has muscular dystrophy. We deal with people every day who may have a visual disability. To be accused of not being compassionate and being discriminatory – it really plays on your mind. I honestly did not think that there would be anyone who would be verbally abusing me for wanting a patient to have a mask on when I perform an eye examination. I think it really surprised me. I am not a confrontational type of person.
As optometrists, we cannot socially distance due to the nature of the job. I have an extremely high-risk step son, I don’t take any risks. Wearing a mask is important. It is a sign of compassion. You are willing to protect someone else from your germs and they can return the favour. Optometrists are close to the faces of patients all day long. We are just doing our job – protecting our patients and protecting ourselves.
AOP guidance on face masksAOP clinical director, Dr Peter Hampson, advised that if optometrists feel uncomfortable with patients who are not exempt from wearing masks failing to do so, they should feel within their rights to insist that a mask is worn.
“The AOP’s opinion is that it is good practice to insist patients wear face coverings while in practice – to help protect everyone in the practice,” he highlighted.
“We believe that refusing to see patients who are not legally exempt from wearing face coverings, yet refuse to wear one, would not breach the GOS contract if you have carried out a workplace risk assessment that concludes that wearing face coverings is a necessary infection control and prevention measure in your practice,” Dr Hampson explained.
Children under the age of 11 and those with certain respiratory or cognitive conditions are legally exempt from wearing masks. Those with “visual impairments, with a restricted field of vision, particularly if any residual vision is at the lower edge of the normal field of view” are among those who are exempt.
The AOP regulatory team can be contacted by email to offer support for practitioners who are uncertain about the correct process to follow.
Using technology to improve accessibility
Dr Jerome uses WelcoMe within her practice - an app that enables staff to find out more about a patient’s needs, including whether they may have an exemption from wearing a face mask, before their arrival.
The web-based platform utilises the patient’s smart phone location services. Their approach triggers a prompt that is sent to staff with an image, an overview of a disability and top tips on how best to interact as well as a message directly from the visitor as to what they are looking to achieve on arrival.
Founder of Neatebox, the company that developed WelcoMe, Gavin Neate, explained that a patient can inform the venue they are travelling to if they are exempt from wearing a mask within the app.
“This of course gives the venue a chance to prepare for their arrival,” Mr Neate said.
“The venue can also ask the question prior to the arrival so that they can preempt the conversation,” he added.
Visit Neatebox for more information.