Editor’s Note: Catherine Pearlman is a clinical social worker, associate professor at Brandman University and the author of Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Go for a walk, visit any open establishment or public space, and you will note a disconcerting phenomenon: People without masks.

Catherine Pearlman

There is a pandemic. Tens of thousands of Americans are dead because of Covid-19, a disease that spreads in droplets that are expelled by infected humans, including as they talk or cough, and whether they show symptoms or not.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone wear a cloth face covering in public, especially where there is a high degree of community-based transmission (that is, when the source of infection is unknown). I live in California, where nearly 60,000 people have been infected. Across the country 1.2 million Americans have tested positive for Covid-19, with more than 73,000 lives lost– and projections for the future (another peak in the fall?) are really grim.

Meanwhile, hospitals and their staff are pushed to the breaking point caring for the sick, with medical staff working weeks without days off to treat the afflicted, risking their own lives and those of their family. And yet, so many people refuse to take warnings seriously to protect themselves and others by wearing a mask in public.

It’s hard to pinpoint how many of us are clueless and careless – maybe half of those who go outside? A third? Some other fraction? – but it’s certainly way too many.

The lack of empathy is jarring. We need a shift.

We need our leaders – all of them – to get the message out loud and clear. If you are away from the closed system of your home, the message should say, you must wear a mask. That means, too, employers mandating that workers of all kinds mask up. Do they want the disease spread to subside; do they want business and the economy to eventually come back – or don’t they?

Masks of any kind are not perfect barriers for contagion. Wearing one doesn’t offer full protection and shouldn’t be thought of as a foolproof, safe way to interact. But experts report that wearing a mask does help protect against transmission by asymptomatic carriers. And note that data show – according to, among others, Robert Redfield, President Donald Trump’s CDC director -- that likely one in four people infected with Covid-19 are indeed asymptomatic and unaware of their contagion.

Be prudent, be kind. One can think the government’s response to the virus is an overreaction and still wear a mask, just in case you might make someone sick. That’s reality.

Wearing a mask is cumbersome. It’s hot, and it’s uncomfortable. But it can save lives and ease the burden on those doctors and nurses facing unspeakable pain and suffering on the front lines.

Making personal sacrifices for the public good has not always been an American priority. We are an individualistic culture, and by nature we may find it more difficult to empathize with others when our own freedom and liberties feel like they are on the line. There is resistance to allowing the government or anyone else step in and require – or even strongly urge – Americans to cover their faces.

But surely we can all understand that sometimes regulations are in place to protect people from themselves, or to avoid suffering of the community. We require drivers to wear seat belts to protect the passengers and minimize the potential for serious injury. (Those injuries not only affect the driver, but also the emergency room workers and even taxpayers through disability and unemployment.)

Laws require children to have vaccines, not only for the child’s sake but to maintain herd immunity for all of us. We don’t have a vaccine for Covid-19. But we can all help until we do: we DO know about masks.

Back in the early 1990s, I was a social work intern in the HIV/AIDS unit at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. AIDS was still a death sentence, and every worker and visitor took “universal precautions” to avoid transmission with all patients. The prevailing wisdom then and now is that when it’s impossible to assess by looking if someone could be infected, wear gloves and masks. We protected ourselves. Yes, wearing gloves was uncomfortable. So was getting HIV.

Where are our universal precautions for Covid-19?

Wearing a mask in public is an act of respect for your fellow humans. This is the kind of empathy I try to teach my children. Our kids are watching the adults through this pandemic, and they are learning lots of lessons – intended and unintended.

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I want my children to understand that being mildly inconvenienced for the greater good is not only right, it’s a moral imperative. It’s how we manage to live together in relative safety in our society.

It’s a no brainer. Wear the damn mask.