Herndon, USA - April 27, 2020: Virginia Fairfax County building exterior sign entrance to Mom's Organic Market store with request to wear face mask due to covid-19 pandemic.

Please Keep Your Masks On

By Chloe Reichel

What is more important: your comfort, or a person’s life?

These are the stakes of the move to unmask in the U.S. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance, which suggests that many people in the U.S. can stop wearing masks, has attempted to change the reality of our COVID risk landscape by assigning new colors to risk levels and massively shifting the parameters of these criteria.

The facts, unfortunately, remain the same. The U.S. is still recording nearly 2,000 COVID-19 deaths per day. Collectively, in just the first two months of 2022, over 95,000 people have died from the virus. For context, over the entire year of 2020, about 385,000 COVID-19 deaths were recorded. And, though vaccines are effective in reducing the likelihood of severe outcomes and death, data shows that this protection is not perfect — for example, in the first week of December 2021, nearly a quarter of COVID-19 deaths occurred in “fully” vaccinated people (682 of 2,912 deaths). 

Moreover, while transmission has plummeted from omicron’s peak of 1 million cases per day, we are still seeing high spread of the virus (over 100 cases per 100,000, or over 10% test positivity) in most of the country.

U.S. Level of Community transmission as of February 28, 2022.
COVID-19 Integrated County View as of February 28, 2022 (via U.S. CDC)

It is in this context that vast swaths of the population effectively are being written out of public life and forced to contend with impossible situations in their private lives. This group includes the immunocompromised, babies and children under the age of five (who, as a group, cannot yet get vaccinated), and those with conditions that put them at higher risk of severe disease (which, by the way, include mood disorders, overweight and obesity, type I and type II diabetes, and heart disease — conditions that are widespread among the U.S. population).

Take, for example, a mother with her baby, unable to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy because everyone inside is unmasked and the baby is too young to wear a mask. Or consider two roommates, one on a medication that suppresses the immune system and the other a graduate student teaching in an unmasked classroom. 

How are these people supposed to live their lives? The vulnerable either get forced further into isolation — if that option, that luxury, is available — or they partake in the activities of daily life bearing the full weight of a risk that could otherwise be mitigated.  

Masks help us gather together safely by containing potentially infectious aerosols. Wearing masks in common, indoor spaces is such a small, easy, powerful act to help prevent the spread of disease. 

Unfortunately, mask-wearing has been lamented and politicized by a small, vocal group. But still, more Americans support requiring masks in public than oppose it

Masks are not a “scarlet letter,” despite what CDC Director Rochelle Walensky might think. Masks have meant the same thing throughout the entire pandemic: I care. 

Remember the days of “my mask protects you, your mask protects me”? That’s still true. The value of masks is additive, the more people who wear them, the better we are protected. This is why masks were and still are a display of solidarity, empathy, and support. 

They’re also just necessary to prevent transmission of the virus. There is no path out of this pandemic without masks. If recent history has demonstrated anything, it’s that prematurely dropping mitigation measures simply prolongs (and exacerbates) the pandemic

Will we need masks forever? If transmission decreases enough, and/or if we improve indoor air quality enough (i.e., through ventilation/filtration to reduce the concentration of virus in the air), then maybe not. But I think this is the wrong question. If you can’t stand masks, interrogate your antipathy. Is it because you want to believe the pandemic is over? Is it because you find them uncomfortable? If the latter, find a different mask. If the former, please read this again from the top. Know that even if you have been insulated from the worst of this pandemic, many others haven’t, and still aren’t, and face an even tougher road ahead.

Chloe Reichel

Chloe Reichel is the Petrie-Flom Center’s Communications Manager. She serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Bill of Health blog and leads the Center's broader communications efforts.

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