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For many Americans, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear a mask in most indoor or outdoor settings, the news was met with enthusiasm, a sign that the Covid-19 pandemic was coming to an end.
But, despite an official green light for many to go maskless, amid confusion surrounding mask mandates, some Americans are choosing to mask up for the foreseeable future.
“I will be wearing my mask indoors, unless I’m eating in a well-ventilated restaurant, but if I’m going shopping or whatever, I will be wearing my mask,” said Laur Kim, 21, who is currently a student.
Now some believe mask-wearing in America may also stretch beyond the immediate pandemic. Motivated by a range of reasons – from confusion and distrust of the CDC guidelines to newly appreciated health benefits of mask-wearing – some vaccinated people have decided to continue wearing a mask for now, with many planning to incorporate masks into their post-pandemic way of life.
Wearing masks has been heralded as a needed tool to limit the transmission of Covid-19, especially as research early in the pandemic showed asymptomatic people could spread the virus. Yet, despite their importance, mask mandates have been a repeated source of contention in the US, prompting protests and regular clashes between “anti-maskers” and those enforcing mask mandates.
Now, alongside celebration is confusion on repeated rewrites of mask-wearing policy. Before the most recent update, the CDC had advised that vaccinated people could be maskless outdoors, but still needed to wear a mask in public indoor spaces. Before that, in February, Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious diseases expert, stated that it was “possible” that masks would have to be worn until February 2022.
Confusion has also been exacerbated as states, cities and municipalities have varying mask mandate policies, with stricter states like Hawaii upholding their mask mandate versus more relaxed rules in Alabama, where the mask mandate was lifted weeks ago. Businesses big and small too have been thrown into the confusing mix, with some following guidelines to allow the unmasked, and others not.
The newest CDC policy also creates separate mask rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, with unvaccinated people still expected to mask. Mandating different mask policies, while questionably practical, has also created more confusion, with Fauci admitting that many unvaccinated Americans misunderstood the distinction.
“To be honest, I was actually surprised when the guidance said, ‘Vaccinated people can do this. Unvaccinated people can do this.’ The reason is that that can cause confusion. It has caused confusion,” said Dr Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco.
With most Americans being unaware of the scientific justifications behind changing guidelines, seemingly conflicting information, especially recommendations that get reversed, can increase the public’s mistrust in public health authorities.
“I think people get tired of hearing scientists go back and forth on recommendations. That reduces trust in public health advice and evidence. That’s my worry,” said Dr Ethan Walker, an epidemiologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Montana.
With varying perceptions on mask protocol, many have continued wearing masks to protect the safety and comfort of others. Even as vaccine rollout continues, the majority of Americans are not fully unvaccinated and many, due to underlying health conditions, cannot receive a dose. Frontline workers, such as waiters or cashiers, are also left vulnerable if people are maskless, given that it’s difficult to gauge someone’s vaccination status in real time.
“[With the pandemic], you’re thinking more about others and protecting others. A lot of my peers feel that way and I hope that that’s a lesson that we [all] get out of this pandemic,” said Ella Knibb, 20, who is a student.
After being in the pandemic, mask-wearing has also become normalized. Despite some disdain for masks and loosened restrictions, the majority of Americans wear a mask anytime they leave the house. As mask-wearing is still expected, some people wear masks to avoid judgment or confrontation from others.
Zhiyeng Zhu, 26, a PhD student, doesn’t plan on wearing a mask outside, but has noted that he will continue wearing them in hospitals, around the elderly and around other masked people. “If there’s social pressure, where you’re entering into a space with lots of people wearing masks, you might want to avoid conflict and then you have to wear [a] mask,” said Zhu.
Mask-wearing has had another silver lining: limiting the spread of respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold or flu, and curbing exposure to air pollution.
As Covid-19 surged this past year, the flu practically vanished, though scientists do not know what specific public health practices helped the flu disappear. Mask-wearing as an independent, isolated factor that can protect against transmission of the flu is still being studied, but researchers have found that wearing a mask can limit the amount of cold or influenza virus a person discharges.
“Normally, in a year, I get three or four colds. This year I’ve had none, so I think even if a mask isn’t necessary [for] Covid any more, I wouldn’t be surprised if people start to wear one when they have a cold because, the fact that a lot of people have gotten less colds shows how effective it is,” said Odeya Rosenband, 20, who is a student.
Masks are also being used by some as a way to stay comfortable and limit exposure to pollution. While masking is not a permanent solution to air pollution’s impact on human health, Walker discussed how well-fitting, quality masks, such as N95s, can help reduce exposure to some pollutants like wildfire particles. “Any little incremental improvement we can get could potentially have large impacts on human health,” said Walker.
Even as the new CDC guidelines caught some off guard, Gandhi and Walker both shared their approval of the science that justified the lifted restrictions on mask wearing, with Gandhi calling the decision “scientifically sound”. Overall, the decision of some to continue wearing a mask is one that makes sense given the tenuous nature of this past year.
“A lot of the reason that even vaccinated people are wearing masks is that it’s hard to completely imbibe this data. It feels really scary. We’ve come off a really anxious time … people are traumatized and they feel safer with the mask. And I think that’s absolutely fine,” said Gandhi.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘People feel safer’: some Americans still masking up despite CDC guidance | US news