Now is a confusing time in the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are getting infected every day, and 3,000 or so are dying. Earlier in the pandemic, numbers this high would have triggered mask mandates and business closures. Today, in the face of these grim stats, states are instead relaxing their pandemic protocols.
That’s partly because even as so many Americans are dying, even more Americans are dying to get back to normal. States including New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Nevada recently announced that they are dropping mask mandates in some form, whether for schools or the general public.
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. The Biden Administration even started giving away free N95 respirators recently to help Americans upgrade their masks.
What should you do with all of this conflicting guidance? Is it time to ditch your mask or not?
“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.”
Whether or not you should wear a mask depends on your individual concerns. 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.
But if you are actively trying to avoid getting infected, then masking up in indoor public spaces is still a good 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. Of course, most areas are nowhere near such a low level of virus transmission yet.
Even among experts who respect one another, there is not widespread agreement about how to think about masking right now, Marr says. “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.”
As mandates dissolve, one potential upside to a masking reprieve is that people will get a taste of normalcy again, which could give them the fortitude to mask up again when it really matters. “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.”
There are far less burdensome ways to filter viruses from the air than strapping a filtering device directly to your face. “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.”
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