The CDC says we can remove our masks, but should we?
I’d just put on my mask to go out when a maskless friend arrived unexpectedly. Why was I still wearing a mask when I’d already been vaccinated, she asked. Hadn’t I heard that the Centers for Disease Control had announced we don’t have to wear one anymore?
I knew about the CDC advisory, I said, but I still didn’t feel comfortable in a pandemic – even an abating pandemic – without a mask in public because most people still haven’t been vaccinated and I’m not sure which expert advice to trust.
That’s just what her husband told her, she replied. He’s still wearing his mask too.
Our conversation is likely to be replicated often in Miami in coming days, and with no conclusive agreement. Early days of the CDC advisory parallel early days of the pandemic, when we lacked reliable guidelines and everyone was trying to figure out how to stay as safe as possible.
So, as much as we all want to go back to pre-pandemic life and as good as it undoubtedly would be for business and the economy, in giving us guidance on mask removal the CDC has still left doubts.
The advisory, after all, said we can remove masks in certain situations. But can remove a mask is not the same as should remove a mask.
We remember well when the president and his allies decided to go without masks, which was followed swiftly by their own covid illness. So we take with a grain of salt an advisory that we can, if we wish, go without precautionary face coverings.
Beyond skepticism, elements of practicality tell us that a face covering is not yet a relic to be left in the drawer. If you ride Metrorail, Metrobus or Metromover, or Tri-Rail, or taxis, or airplanes, you still have to wear a covering. The same is true in medical settings and in many business establishments, some stores but not others – announcements of rules changes dribble in.
Then there’s doubt about who you may meet. Adolescents are just now being inoculated, but children under 12 aren’t. Even if you’re protected, can you pass Covid-19 on to youngsters who then spread it?
So whether or not you’re bold enough to remove the mask, you’re most likely going to have to carry it.
Even if you don’t want to protect yourself or those around you, you might consider a mask in public for a practical reason: trust.
Maskless adults are supposed to have been inoculated against covid. But consider the many people who reject a vaccine for political or ideological reasons, remember that Florida’s governor has made it a point to block vaccine credentialing, and note that only a third of us are vaccinated.
So, do you believe every maskless adult really was inoculated, or are some unvaccinated covid deniers? And if you are without a mask, will strangers think you’re a denier too? In other words, do strangers trust each other to do the right thing for public health?
Another problem in going without masks is that, despite studies, we don’t know enough about Covid-19. We don’t know how long inoculation lasts or whether it will hold against fast-developing variants, because rushed vaccines had to be used without long-term tests. Vaccines might last a lifetime or maybe only until next month. Only time will tell.
We also don’t know if those who once had the disease could later contract a more dangerous variant that they could spread.
A wild card applies more here than elsewhere: as travel reopens, Miami as a global magnet will again host people from everywhere. While total cases, hospitalizations and deaths here are declining, the pandemic rages elsewhere and visitors might bring here new variants.
No doubt the CDC is expert on the pandemic. But pandemic experts disagree widely, a New York Times report noted Saturday, and they can’t all be right. The paper surveyed 723 epidemiologists about when and how the nation can return to normal and found wide divisions, highlighting the unknowns still surrounding this disease.
Their consensus was that the epidemic will spread until children are vaccinated, and no child under 12 is now to be vaccinated, leaving timing vague. Further, they say that until 70% to 80% of the entire population is vaccinated – it’s only 33% now – we’ll stay in pandemic mode. Most say it will be five years until we can treat Covid-19 like the flu, circulating at a lower rate and still with deaths every year.
The epidemiologists do offer good news: 85% say it will be safe to go to Fourth of July barbecues, 86% say it’s likely schools can safely open fully in the fall, and 90% think it will be safe for families to gather indoors for the winter holidays. But these gains still assume we use covid precautions (the survey was taken before the CDC announcement).
Still, they said, lack of effective vaccinating globally will haunt us, and 38% said Americans’ resistance to vaccination is the biggest obstacle to stamping out the virus, well ahead of the 24% who say the biggest obstacle is new variants springing up.
Science and medicine progressed remarkably in getting a third of us vaccinated in safety today. And now CDC experts tell us that progress will allow those who are fully vaccinated to remove our masks in public.
But we are also allowed by law and traffic signals walk across Dixie Highway at rush hour. I would hesitate to recommend that. We can do it, but I’m not sure we should. It’s legal, but not overly safe.
That distinction is why I still wear my mask.