It’s time to unmask Charlotte’s very own masked crusader: Dr. Anne McIntosh, a communications expert who was thinking about masks long before COVID. McIntosh, who lives in Davidson, is a communications professor at Central Piedmont Community College. Her specialty is communication studies, from how it works to how it doesn’t, with a focus on conflict resolution and problem solving.
Her own communication crisis led her to create the Safe ‘N’ Clear Communicator, a mask with a clear panel that allows people to see your mouth and read your expressions. McIntosh is deaf, so she knows what can happen when people can’t hear you or even read your lips. “Communication is a basic human right,” she says. “You have to have that connection.”
Her own mask journey started in 2001, when she gave birth to her first child. After 24 hours of labor, her doctor ordered a cesarean section and whisked her from the labor and delivery suite to an operating room—where everyone, from the surgeon to her husband, was masked. No one could tell her what was happening because she couldn’t see their lips. She couldn’t make sure anyone knew her blood type, or that she’s allergic to penicillin.
“Everything went fine. Our daughter was born,” McIntosh tells me over Zoom, which allows her to read my lips. “But I thought about how close it could have come. There was no time to think about how to communicate. No one got a whiteboard (to write on). That was an ‘oopsie’ moment.” After her communication crisis was over, she started to wonder: “Why don’t we just have clear masks? That oopsie became my ‘aha.’”
It wasn’t that easy, of course. First, she found an in-state company to make a prototype for a soft-fiber, disposable surgical mask with an embedded clear plastic panel. She wanted it manufactured in the U.S., so she found a family-owned company in Texas that makes medical-grade equipment. The company won approval from the Food & Drug Administration in 2016, and McIntosh started to market and sell—aiming mostly at hospitals, particularly children’s hospitals. “Children like to see faces, that reassuring smile.”
The clear mask looks a little strange if you’re not used to it—an isolated mouth can look like a forced grin. But the need to see your mouth is sometimes more important than how you look. McIntosh’s mask is now used in places beyond operating rooms. While it isn’t used at either the Novant or Atrium facilities in Charlotte, it’s popular with children’s hospitals, including St. Jude in Memphis and the Seattle Children’s Hospital. It’s useful in early childhood education—children learn pronunciation by seeing their teachers’ mouths—and senior care facilities, including Brookdale Senior Living. Her most surprising customers: veterinarians. Dogs judge our moods by our facial expressions.
McIntosh’s mask, medical-grade equipment made in an FDA-approved facility, costs more than others—$60 for a box of 40, although the per-mask cost is a little cheaper if you buy in bulk. You can order it online through safenclear.com.
McIntosh doesn’t apologize for the cost, though. Her mask is fog-resistant with a sturdy nose piece and comfortable woven ear loops. Many of the cheaper, surgical-style, blue paper masks are made in other countries that don’t inspect their factories. Hers sets a higher standard: “It’s the Mercedes of masks.”