Let’s end COVID! has been encouraging everyone to wear masks – well-fitted, high-filtration, properly positioned, in key scenarios – as well as promoting vaccination since we started this series of articles in late January. With the recent CDC announcement that many restrictions on fully vaccinated people could be relaxed, there is a lot of confusion about what that means for masking.
Who does it apply to?
To hear people talking about it initially, you would think it meant we could all burn all our masks. Not quite! First off, the mask requirement relaxation only applies to fully vaccinated people. Second, it does not supersede any “federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, business, or workplace” requirements – in other words PA state mask requirements still stand, calling for masking indoors in public accommodations and outdoors in crowds. Third, there are exceptions, even for the fully vaccinated. Specifically excepted for now: masks should still be worn by everyone on transit, in healthcare settings, and in congregate living.
In addition to these exceptions, anyone who is vaccinated should also consider whether they share a household with someone at higher risk, for example anyone not yet fully vaccinated (many who only became eligible in mid-April), those unable to be vaccinated (children under 12 or people with certain medical conditions), or people with weakened immune systems (the very elderly or those undergoing chemotherapy, even if vaccinated). A vaccinated person who has long-term close contact with people in these categories should remain cautious about going maskless around others.
Is this announcement vindication for people who have rejected masks all along? Like a big I-told-you-so?
Well, no, it’s actually vindication for the vaccines. They are effective enough to make this possible. And it is by no means a rejection of masks as a way to reduce infections. Masks have been and will continue to be very useful for that – for anyone who is not fully vaccinated or for those wanting to avoid other infections or even allergens that might be circulating.
If you see someone wearing a mask moving forward, there are many potential reasons for them to be doing so. They might just have a cold and not want to spread their germs to others. The new recommendation is not even a rejection of mask mandates in general, but rather an optimistic projection that we are making progress toward our goal of more immunity and less disease.
So how vaccinated/immune are we?
The CDC announcement didn’t note benchmarks that would allow us to calibrate our response to local vaccination levels, but we can look at the overall/national data to get a sense of where we stand. According to the CDC, the US (as of May 17) is 37% fully vaccinated and 47.3% partially vaccinated.
By contrast Pennsylvania is 39.1% full and 54.6% partial. Lycoming County is at 31.7% and 40.8%, respectively. So while the state as a whole is ahead of the country on both counts, the county is behind both the state average and the national average. This means that in Lycoming County the newly relaxed CDC mask recommendations are directly relevant to less than a third of the residents – and even fewer than the 31% who are fully vaccinated, once you consider how many people in that category live with others who are not yet vaccinated.
And that’s just one of the stats to consider. How much has disease transmission slowed?
In making the announcement, the head of the CDC noted that nationally cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are dropping. That’s great news, but it also conceals local variation. Those stats have been dropping for PA on average, too. But what about Lycoming County? Well, while there are far fewer people hospitalized and dying now than at the winter peak, the county curves dropped until about the middle of March, then rose again, and now are continuing along roughly level. While they are not rising locally, they are not yet dropping decisively either.
Recall that it has taken us five months to get to where we are now with vaccinations. Allowing for the number of people already partially vaccinated who will shift into the fully vaccinated column in coming weeks, it looks like most counties in the state will be at 40% fully vaccinated by May 31. If we make use of ample vaccine availability and continue getting vaccinated, the state could make it all the way to 70% by July 4. But only if we pick up the pace!
To find out where to get the shot, go to http://www.vaccines.gov, call 1-800-232-0233, text your zip code to GETVAX (438829) for English, or text your zip to VACUNA (822862) for Spanish.
Let’s get vaccinated in order to be in a position to choose whether to mask or not anymore. We can do this! Let’s end COVID!
Samantha Pearson is the executive director of Lewisburg Neighborhoods, a non-profit in Union County; she is collaborating on regional public health messaging with the Lycoming-based Let’s end COVID group.