On May 13, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced that those who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks, at least in some situations.
The announcement came as a pleasant surprise to some, but felt too soon to others.
As a scientist, I’ve watched with fascination how the mask-wearing issue has evolved over the past year-plus. It began with resistance (by citizens as well as government entities) before it shifted to acceptance, only then to become a social and political statement for many.
Now, faced with de-masking, we have a new set of variables to consider.
In this article, I’ll briefly outline the history of mask-wearing. Then, I discuss the new CDC mask recommendations and their pros and cons.
The Beginning: Resistance to Masks
In February/March of 2020, the notion of wearing a mask to prevent spread of illness sounded like craziness to many. The CDC stated outright that mask-wearing was unnecessary unless sick or caring for someone who is sick. The World Health Organization (WHO) concurred.
To some extent, this was understandable. Supply chain problems had reared their heads and we wanted to reserve masks for the people who needed them most: namely, those working in healthcare.
Also, at that time, there wasn’t much conclusive evidence that masking up would help prevent the virus’s spread.
Yet, other countries (e.g., China, Japan) swore by mask-wearing for this and previous outbreaks and appeared to have lower rates of infection. Also, from a scientific standpoint it made a lot of sense that covering your mouth and nose could prove useful in preventing infection with an airborne respiratory virus like SARS-CoV-2.
Among the masses, I saw a whole host of excuses for why masks were a bad idea:
- They’re worthless if not made of the correct materials (an understandable concern that turned out to be false)
- Any success seen in mask-wearing countries is “correlation” and “correlation is not causation” (another form of resistance while using statistical buzzwords)
- Wearing masks “activates the virus” and can actually cause illness (patently false)
- Mask-wearing is an infringement upon personal freedoms, and a sign of giving into fear (more resistance, American-style)
But with time, resistance began to dwindle in the face of stark reality.
The CDC Changes its Stance on Masks
Several things happened that led leadership to re-assess its views on masks.
First, the SARS-CoV-2 virus began spreading in the US during spring. It went from a few isolated cases to a countrywide problem in what seemed like no time, and people finally began to understand where the term “going viral” came from.
Second, other countries such as Italy had gotten blindsided by the virus and wound up with overwhelmed medical resources, resulting in a high number of deaths. Italy issued a warning to other countries to avoid what they suffered.
Third, scientific evidence began to roll in showing that people could have COVID-19 and show no symptoms, but still transmit the illness to others.
Fourth, more evidence showed that wearing a mask could prevent those asymptomatic folks from transmitting their infection through exhalation, even if we still weren’t sure at the time that masks protect the rest of us from getting it.
Finally, the US government decided to join the mask brigade. The CDC came around in early April 2020 to recommend masks; the WHO dragged their feet and didn’t do the same until early June.
Empirical evidence of the efficacy of mask-wearing began to slowly accumulate.
There was still resistance, of course, by government officials and citizens alike. Nonetheless, this began the era of the mask.
Masks Become Mainstream in the US
It took time, but more and more people, including some of the early resistors, began masking up. Many chose to, although some did so because they had to if they wanted to purchase groceries or shop at Home Depot for those quarantine-induced home improvement supplies.
By now, shelter-in-place orders were in full swing and many non-essential businesses had shut down. But they eventually reopened and mask-wearing became part of our normal daily lives when we went outside our homes, to the point where by summer 2020 the majority of Americans wore them by choice.
For me, what felt constricting and weird at first came to feel… normal. As if this writing, even fully vaccinated, I feel strange going anywhere around people if I’m not masked.
CDC Lifts the Mask Recommendation for Vaccinated People
In mid-May of 2021, after a year of mask-wearing, the CDC announced that those who are vaccinated can ditch the masks.
Their rationale? That the new guidelines would encourage more Americans to get vaccinated, with the hope of achieving herd immunity.
By this time, despite some resisting vaccines, more than 50% of US adults had received at least one shot and the COVID-19 infection rates and deaths had begun to decline significantly.
The guidelines are as follows:
- They apply only to those who are fully vaccinated (two weeks after second Pfizer or Moderna shot, two weeks after single Johnson & Johnson shot). Those unvaccinated or partly vaccinated still need to wear masks.
- You can resume normal activities without masking or staying six feet apart.
- You can travel in the US without being tested or quarantining after arrival at your destination.
- You will still need to mask up on all public transportation, including buses and planes, as well as in medical facilities, nursing homes, prisons, and homeless shelters.
- International travel still has many requirements and depends on your destination.
- You still need to follow local guidelines in your city, state, workplace, etc.
- It’s still recommended that you wear masks in public areas where you’re indoors or around large groups, such as restaurants, malls, gyms, salons, theaters, or concerts and sporting events.
Pros and Cons of Dropping Mask Requirements
For many, the CDC’s announcement was a pleasant surprise and relief, and a sign that life in the US will begin returning to normal again. Others, however, feel the decision was premature and fraught with problems.
Here are the pros of the CDC’s decision:
- Optimism. The change in recommendations is a signal that we’re returning to Life Before COVID-19 after more than a year of anxiety, sacrifice, and going without all the things we took for granted.
- Freedom. For the vaccinated, we can again engage in activities we’ve missed (e.g., seeing (vaccinated) friends/family in person, returning to the office, traveling, eating out, attending public activities such as festivals or concerts).
- Incentive for the hesitant. Hopefully, the promise of these new freedoms will push the hesitant to get vaccinated, because the more vaccinated folks we have, the better in terms of preventing illness for all.
- Economic benefits. The pandemic took its toll on the economy and hit certain industries hard, such as food service, hospitality, and travel. Removal of mask mandates means these and other industries can get rolling again, for the betterment of all.
However, the CDC’s decision does come with a few wrinkles to consider:
- Difficult to validate. When we go to a public place, we have no way of knowing who’s gotten vaccinated and who hasn’t. If the unvaccinated choose to avoid masks, everybody else is at risk for exposure to the virus. Not a huge concern for the average vaccinated citizen, but a problem for those who are vulnerable, not yet vaccinated, and as we’ll see below, children.
- Tricky to enforce. If employers or businesses want the unvaccinated to wear masks until they get vaccinated, how do they obtain proof of vaccination? Employers have the law behind them to require masks in the workplace, but businesses aren’t as equipped to enforce such mandates, at least not easily.
- Broad interpretation of guidelines. The CDCs recommendations are just that. They’re guidelines, not orders. State and local governments are free to do as they wish. Here in Denver, mask requirements are still in place. However, a colleague of mine lives in Texas, where mask mandates have lifted completely and nobody wears them. If she continues wearing a mask, she risks harassment; if she doesn’t, she risks illness.
- What about kids? One group most frustrated by the CDC’s recommendations are parents. Children under 12 have not been vaccinated and are expected to wear masks, even when Mom/Dad/older siblings no longer have to. In areas where schools have done away with masks, children are also at risk for contracting the illness in the classroom… and spreading it to other people.
What do you think? Did the CDC make the right call? Or did they jump the gun? Leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts.
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