Should You Wear a Mask? What to Do as Mandates Roll Back
This is an uncertain time for the pandemic. Each day thousands are infected and around 3000 are dead. These numbers would have led to business closures or mask mandates earlier in the pandemic. In the face these dire stats states have begun to relax their pandemic protocol.
That’s partly because even as so many Americans are dying, even more Americans are dying to get back to normal. New Jersey and Nevada, as well as Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island (Illinois), Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Massachusetts, Nevada, Connecticut, Delaware, Delaware, Rhode Island and Rhode Island recently declared that they would no longer mandate the use of masks, regardless of whether it was for schools or general audiences.
However, the federal government thinks it’s too soon. “Around the country, I know people are really cautiously optimistic as they’re seeing case rates go down, but what I will say is that we still have about 290,000 cases a day and hospitalizations that are higher than they ever were in our Delta peak,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), on SiriusXM’s Doctor Radio this week. “Right now, I don’t think, is the moment to start relaxing those restrictions.” Masks are still required on trains, planes, and buses, and the CDC still recommends wearing them indoors where viral transmission is high—which is almost the entire country. In an effort to upgrade masks in the United States, the Biden administration gave away N95 respirators free of charge.
How do you deal with this contradictory advice? Are you ready to let go of the mask?
“To me, it feels just a little early because cases and hospitalizations are still high,” says Linsey Marr, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and an expert in the airborne transmission of viruses. “They are trending downwards, but I would like to see those numbers a little lower—maybe in just a week or two—before we all unmask.”
Your individual needs will determine whether or not you wear a face mask. Marr says she’ll consider taking her mask off once there’s no longer strain on the health care system. “I’m boosted, I’ve been exposed through my kids going to school. I’m not that worried about my own health,” she says.
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If you want to prevent getting sick, masking in public indoor spaces can still be a smart idea. New CDC data found that people who wore masks indoors were much less likely to get sick than those who didn’t wear them, and N95 and KN95 respirators proved to be particularly effective: people who wore those were 83% less likely to test positive than people who didn’t wear a mask. “So even if people around you are unmasked, you’ll still be well protected wearing a respirator,” Marr says.
Still, people are tired after two long years of masking up, and it’s not unreasonable to begin contemplating life after masks. “We do need to be getting away from wearing masks everywhere all the time,” says Don Milton, professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health—who has studied airborne infection for more than 25 years. “We’re just coming down from such a high peak that it’s not like we’re out of the woods yet.”
Milton recommends “look[ing] at the case rates in your area, your vulnerability, and your family network’s vulnerability” to determine whether or not to wear a mask. “You want to see a positive test rate that’s very low: below 1%, like half a percent,” he suggests as a benchmark. New cases per 100,000 people should be around one, he says, “and I want to see the infection rate be very low,”—meaning the number of new people each infected person will spread the virus to, a key indicator of whether viral spread is growing or shrinking. However, the virus spread rate is still high in most parts of the country.
Marr states that even among professionals who are respectful of one another there isn’t widespread consensus on how to approach masking. “There is no right answer. There are so many different factors to consider, like cases, hospitalizations, vaccination rates, the severity of disease, and herd immunity.”
Mandates will end, and people may experience a temporary reprieve. This could allow them to feel normal again. It might also give them the strength to continue to cover up when they really matter. “We don’t want to keep mandates beyond the time they’re needed, because then people lose trust,” Marr says. “If there comes a surge in the future when you do really need them, everyone is burned out.”
It is far easier to remove viruses from the air by attaching a filtering device to your face than it is to use a mask. “In concert with dropping masks, we need to be upping our game around cleaning the air,” says Milton, whose students are currently building DIY air-cleaning devices in class for use in their dorm rooms and local barbershops and beauty salons. Indoor air filtration is one of the few ways to passively reduce everyone’s exposure to SARS-CoV-2, influenza, and other viruses.
“It’s become really clear within the last six months that vaccination alone can’t control this virus,” he says. “We need these non-pharmaceutical layers of protection.”