Should You Still Wear a Mask?
Now that a federal judge here in Florida has ended the mask mandate on public transportation, our primary care doctors in Delray Beach are getting questions from our patients wondering whether they should still mask up in public places. (The Justice Department is appealing the ruling.)
And just because the federal mandate is on hold doesn’t mean there aren’t still some places where you’re required to wear masks.
As the Miami Herald noted recently, the Broadway production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” for example, will require masks for its May and June performances at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami-Dade, as will the May and June performances of the Carnival Studio Theater’s May and June’s presentation of “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord,” along with June and July’s Summer Shorts.
Private small businesses can require them, as can hospitals, nursing facilities, doctor’s offices, and assisted living facilities. But what if you’re going to a place that doesn’t require them?
The pandemic isn’t over
We sympathize with those who want to get back to their normal lives, including going about without a mask. The problem is, while we’re through with COVID-19, the virus isn’t through with us. In fact, it spends 24 hours a day, seven days a week trying to survive and reproduce. It is relentless in its quest to adapt to our defenses.
For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last month that the newest omicron subvariant, BA.2.12.1, now accounts for about 20 percent of new cases nationwide. Health officials estimate that this subvariant is 23 percent to 27 percent more transmissible than the original omicron variant, which itself was even more transmissible than earlier variants.
Fortunately, this subvariant doesn’t seem to be any more deadly than its predecessors, which were lethal enough. While the numbers of deaths and hospitalizations have plummeted in recent weeks, the country is still recording 600 coronavirus deaths a day.
And even though hospitalizations and deaths have declined, the data show that recent cases are on the rise in certain areas of the country, including here in Florida. It’s also important to note that the CDC’s new rating system of “red-yellow-green” doesn’t reflect transmission rates. It’s a measure of how many hospital beds are available in each locality.
In addition, the widespread use of home testing kits for the virus means positivity rates are no longer being reported to a central agency. This means as a country we’re less sure about how many people in a given area are infected. But it’s likely that actual cases are higher than reported cases, because those with mild symptoms may never see a doctor to be treated.
We’ve discussed many times how masks help prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which also cuts down on opportunities for it to mutate into something worse.
They also help protect those who are particularly susceptible to the virus, including children under age five who can’t yet be vaccinated, the immunocompromised who either can’t get the vaccine or for whom it doesn’t work as well, and those who can’t be vaccinated for various reasons.
And remember that vaccines are not a guarantee you’ll never get infected with the coronavirus. Vaccines aren’t a magic shield that will keep you from becoming infected. They just teach your body how to fight off the infection. How well it does that depends on many variables, including your health status, any underlying conditions, your age, sex, and lifestyle, how long it’s been since you were vaccinated, what strain of the virus you contracted, etc.
In fact, you probably know someone who was fully vaccinated and boosted but still tested positive or became ill. That’s because the vaccines were designed to prevent serious infection, hospitalizations, and deaths. They can’t keep the virus from entering your body; that’s what masks are for. Masks provide an additional layer of protection beyond vaccines from the largely airborne viral particles.
Should you wear one?
The CDC now says the question of whether to wear a mask is up to the individual’s tolerance for risk.
One thing to factor into your decision is the fact that so many others aren’t wearing them now. This means that indoor air in poorly ventilated spaces may be contaminated.
“The most common way COVID-19 is transmitted from one person to another is through tiny airborne particles of the virus hanging in indoor air for minutes or hours after an infected person has been there,” Alondra Nelson, head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote in a blog post recently.
As for plane travel, the International Air Transport Association reports that cabin air is refreshed 20-30 times an hour, with the air being half-fresh and half-filtered while the plane is in flight. But when it’s sitting on the runway, the air exchange isn’t as efficient. Also, before you board you’re surrounded by travelers from all over the world in the airport and on some transportation, so you’re more likely to be exposed in these areas.
“You can quote me on this: I’m going to continue to wear an N95 mask,” David Freedman, professor emeritus of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told The Washington Post.
“I think everyone should. No question. You have no idea who’s on a plane,” he added.