May 27, 2024


Science It Works

Why I Won’t Quit My Mask. Not Yet

I got my second COVID shot at the Natick Mall last week. The process was seamless, and despite the rough 12 hours that followed, I felt instantly lighter. Multiple family funerals, a pandemic break-up, 20 pounds, and a year and a half of online graduate school later, it was an emotional moment.

Practically, it’s also exciting to consider the wide range of activities I may now engage in safely and comfortably. The CDC’s latest guidelines, for example, say I can stop wearing my mask outside and in many indoor spaces. To be clear, I’ve hated wearing a mask for the entirety of this pandemic. I’ll even admit that the inconvenience has dissuaded me from running a quick errand that I wouldn’t have thought twice about pre-pandemic. However, like millions of vaccinated Americans, I’ll continue sporting a face covering for the next month or two.

While media has jumped onto narratives that liberals like myself “just can’t quit” the pandemic, our overcommitment to doing our part in this public health crisis is precisely because we want to leave COVID behind. Conservatives lambaste “liberal virtue signalers” like me, labelling us hypocrites. Aren’t we the “follow the science” banshees? Yet, the decision to keep wearing my mask is entirely consistent with the pro-science, pro-public health attitude we’ve championed since early last year.

First, while the CDC guidelines have served as a baseline standard for this pandemic, many state and local governments also adopted extra precautions. As Trump made clearer than ever, the CDC must contend with science and politics. In rolling out ever-evolving COVID recommendations, a balance is necessarily struck between what science demands and what a wearied public will tolerate.

I understand why the CDC came to its latest recommendation to relax mask policy. The science is clear that, in many cases, fully vaccinated Americans can safely go maskless without posing a risk to themselves or others. Moreover, we need to show people that if the country gets vaccinated, we can start returning to normal.

Still, the sad reality is that not everyone in this country was willing to do their part during this pandemic. Millions of Americans, and an entire political party, have made going maskless a statement of prideful defiance — fellow citizens be damned. This lack of compliance gives at risk, vulnerable populations the added burden of assuming the worst of every maskless stranger they encounter. While most elderly and higher-risk Americans were prioritized for the vaccine, no vaccine is 100{13aab5633489a05526ae1065595c074aeca3e93df6390063fabaebff206207ec} effective.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we must work as a community to defeat this virus. However, Americans have been uniquely defiant when it comes to cooperating with public health mandates and recommendations. Fueled by hyper-partisanship, this non-compliance has led to a breakdown of trust in our daily social interactions.

This is not about eternally virtue signaling liberal pandemic politics, but rather acknowledging that our actions influence each other.

As a 27-year-old myself, I would not assume the average maskless 27-year-old walking through Harvard Square has been fully vaccinated. Vaccination just recently became open to all adults in the state, and some young adults have expressed vaccine hesitation. More pointedly, tons of people in this area have been going maskless since well before the vaccine was accessible.

We have a few months to go before we reach ideal vaccination levels. For the sake of at-risk community members’ peace of mind, I’m happy to wear my mask outdoors and in non-intimate indoor environments for a little while longer. I have to carry it with me anyway, as there are still a number of places and settings that require masks. I’ll admit, it’s also not worth the skeptical stares. It’s a harmless step I can take to make members of my community more comfortable as we work to restitch the social fabric the pandemic tore.

I believe not ditching the mask immediately will make my community safer. This is not because I don’t trust the CDC to make scientifically supported public health recommendations. The CDC makes policy calculations with hundreds of millions of actors in mind. This does not mean they wouldn’t prefer to granularly target policies to certain regions and demographics, or that doing so wouldn’t be more productive for public health outcomes. Again, their obstacles are social and political, not purely scientific.

While the CDC may not be able to target pandemic recommendations at the individual level, I know what level of compliance I can tolerate in conjunction with what the science suggests. I know that I’m in a position to do more than the bare minimum, and I know that social science (and simple logic) tells us that fewer vaccinated people wearing masks will most likely lower compliance among unvaccinated people. If vaccinated people continue to wear a mask in public, unvaccinated people may continue to comply, making everyone safer.

This is not about eternally virtue signaling liberal pandemic politics, but rather acknowledging that our actions influence each other.

And still, I understand that it’s been an impossibly hard and inconvenient year. I understand if you are tired of wearing a mask and are overdue to breathe in fresh air, unobstructed and in public, the very first second you can.

That may be your best. That may be what is right for you. Don’t shame me for doing the same.

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