Don’t Toss Your Mask Yet

Pandemic fatigue. We all feel it. We’re tired of staying home, tired of not having family get-togethers, tired of someone else picking our produce at the grocery store, tired of mentally measuring the space between ourselves and people we meet.

And we’re tired of wearing masks!

A couple of weeks ago I accepted an invitation to lunch with two good friends I hadn’t seen in person for many, many months. All of us fully vaccinated, we felt reasonably safe. What a wonderful time! It was a warm day so after lunch we had a leisurely chat on the patio. It felt a little strange after staying isolated for so long.

It felt… normal!

That is what we all crave these days. To get back to work, back to school, back to shopping and dining out. To get back to normal.

As I sat down to write this, two important things happened. The CDC issued new guidance dropping or relaxing certain precautions for vaccinated folks. Meanwhile, the virus raged out of control in India, threatening to destroy their healthcare system.

These events tell us two things: that we are making progress and returning to normal is really possible, but also that the pandemic is not over yet, and it would be foolish to relax too much too soon.

A crisis like this makes headline news day after day. (We are tired of this, too!) We are flooded with news reports and social media posts talking about infection and hospitalization rates, death counts, and what we should be doing or not doing to protect ourselves, our families, and our neighbors.

This “infodemic” can be as frustrating as the pandemic itself. Too much information coming from too many directions, much of it based on sound facts and good science, some of it misleading, can be confusing.

To make matters worse, even the reliable information keeps changing.

Why? Because science is a process. Science experiments and gathers data. New studies build on previous study results.

Early COVID advice was based on the well-known fact that germs on frequently touched surfaces are easily transferred on our hands and make us sick when we touch our mouths or noses. It was logical to recommend cleaning surfaces and washing our hands to keep the coronavirus from spreading.

This absolutely helps, but newer studies have shown that COVID-19 spreads mostly through the air. Now, prevention focuses on wearing masks and staying far enough away from others to make breathing in any particles they may spread by breathing, sneezing, speaking, or singing less likely.

These measures are only partly effective for many reasons, including mask materials and fit, ventilation and air flow in buildings, and how many people actually follow them. They can’t stop the virus but they can slow it down, buying time to develop vaccines that keep people from getting sick when exposed.

This is where we are now, and why the end is in sight at last. We have several vaccines that we know keep people from getting seriously ill or getting COVID-19 at all.  When was the last time you worried about getting smallpox, whooping cough, or polio? You do not have to, because of vaccines. We can get there with COVID, too, but that means getting to “community immunity,” when the virus can no longer find people it can infect.

Some people, including those with weak immune systems and (for now) children, can’t take the vaccine. Fortunately, not everyone needs to be vaccinated, just most of us. (What “most” means is impossible to define exactly, but we will know when we get there by the drop in infections.)

Researchers know a lot about this disease and are learning more all the time.  This is the science behind the CDC’s new guidance, which helps fully vaccinated people get partway back to normal without jeopardizing community immunity.

You are fully vaccinated if you got your Johnson & Johnson or your second Pfizer or Moderna shot at least two weeks ago. You can visit indoors with other fully vaccinated people and with unvaccinated people from a single household without masking or physical distancing. You can participate in outdoor activities without a mask, except in certain crowded settings.

You should still wear a mask indoors in public places, in outdoor crowds, when gathering with unvaccinated people (including children) from more than one other household, and when visiting an unvaccinated person who is at higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 or who lives with someone at higher risk.

It is great that so far, the vaccines work against the virus variants. These precautions give the virus fewer chances to mutate into variants our vaccines won’t work against.

If you are not vaccinated, keep wearing your mask and social distancing. Get vaccinated if you can.

Let’s get back to normal. Let’s end COVID!

Michael Heyd, a retired medical librarian from Fairfield Township who spent more than forty years searching the literature for professional hospital staff, is a member of
Let’s end COVID!
Publishd: 5/15/21

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