Do You Still Need to Wear a Mask?

Photo: Gerrie van der Walt / Unsplash

Traveling in the United States just got less safe for immunosuppressed people and others at higher risk of severe illness from Covid.

Hours after a judge’s unprecedented decision to nullify the federal mask mandate on public transportation, many airline companies, rideshare services and transit agencies announced that they would no longer require masking. Across the country, masks are coming down…just as Covid cases are going up.

I saw this firsthand. On a Tuesday morning flight from New York to Washington, DC, two thirds of passengers were masked. On the way back, just half of the passengers were masked. On my flight, the pilot sensibly said, “Please respect whatever masking decision other passengers have made.” Unfortunately, other flights had different experiences. We would benefit from more consideration of others these days.

We’re in a much different place now than we were earlier in the pandemic, with a virus that’s more contagious but less virulent, a wall of immunity from vaccination and previous infection, and better tests, treatments and disease surveillance. Even though many at-home Covid test results aren’t being reported, case rates are still a lot lower than they were a few months ago, and many people feel more comfortable traveling, gathering indoors and shedding their masks.

Two years ago, nearly all people who tested positive for Covid in hospitals were there because the virus was making them sick — after all, there was NO immunity to it, and the virus was more lethal than Omicron. In contrast, more than 90% of Americans have some level of immunity to Covid — from vaccinations, prior infection, or both, and Omicron is not as fierce as earlier strains. But as the deaths in Hong Kong and continued deaths and long Covid cases around the world show, Omicron can still be deadly.

So if I’m up to date on my vaccines and not feeling sick, should I continue to mask up? If I’m comfortable going maskless, shouldn’t everyone else be too?

The pandemic may seem like it’s ending, but it’s far from over. Driven by new Omicron subvariants, a new wave has likely begun in the United States and hundreds of people continue to die from Covid every day. This doesn’t mean a deadly surge is inevitable, but it DOES mean that unvaccinated and under-vaccinated elderly and medically vulnerable people could face a deadly threat as cases increase.

Like it or not, we’re all connected — and we have a responsibility to protect those among us who are most vulnerable by taking reasonable precautions. Small actions can make a big impact. To save lives and keep our economy running smoothly, we must continue to use low-cost/high-reward public health tools, including masks.

If you’re immunosuppressed (or just concerned about getting sick) and people around you aren’t masking, consider upping your mask game to a more protective N95 — they aren’t perfect, but they block airborne particles better than a cloth or surgical mask.

While we may be sick and tired of the pandemic, the virus isn’t tired of making us sick. Wearing a mask is a small price to pay for the large reduction in the risk you’ll become infected, contract long Covid, possibly get seriously ill, or make someone else seriously ill.

Study after study has shown that masks are a simple, proven tool to reduce the spread of Covid. Here are a few facts:

  • Masks drastically reduce your risk of getting infected.
  • You can spread this virus even if you feel perfectly fine.
  • The more people who wear masks when Covid is spreading, as it is once again starting to, the better protected we all are.

Masking up can protect you, your family, and the people around you.

We don’t know yet how much of an impact the BA.2 Covid wave will have, but the bigger concern is what could happen in the months ahead, particularly if we are underprepared.

Will new dangerous variants emerge that cause more severe illness or further escape our immunity?

What if a new non-Covid health threat emerges?

Will politics undermine the ability of federal, state or local health departments to protect people?

Because we’re all connected, our personal health often depends on what others do. We rely on society and government protections to ensure that our kids don’t get hit by a drunk driver, that we don’t get terribly sick from unsanitary food at a restaurant, that our medicine isn’t contaminated. Likewise, we need public health tools to protect us if a new variant or another health threat emerges.

Covid is continuing to adapt, and our response needs to adapt along with it. Right now, all of us can take simple steps to protect ourselves and others from Covid. This includes staying up-to-date on vaccinations, getting tested before gathering with those who are more vulnerable, getting on treatment with Paxlovid as soon as we test positive, especially if we’re at high risk, staying home if we don’t feel well, and masking up in higher-risk environments or when community spread is high.

Remember: Even if you don’t think you’re at risk from Covid, people around you might be. When in doubt, mask up.

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President and CEO, Resolve to Save Lives | Former CDC Director and NYC Health Commissioner | Focused on saving lives. twitter.com/drtomfrieden

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Dr. Tom Frieden

Dr. Tom Frieden

President and CEO, Resolve to Save Lives | Former CDC Director and NYC Health Commissioner | Focused on saving lives. twitter.com/drtomfrieden

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