COVID 19: The Great Unmasking
Health and Gender Policy Brief #149 | By: Alexandra Ellis | March 22, 2022
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Since March 10, 2022, nearly all Americans can go without their masks indoors per new Center Disease Control guidance. Nearly for the entirety of the pandemic, different guidance has been given about masks – which has led to a lot of confusion and misinformation. Local, state, and federal government look to the CDC for guidance on how and when to guide their citizens on mask mandates.
At the same time, the anti-mask and medical freedom movement stormed city council meetings demanding the end of masks and emergency orders requiring them. Now, as states forgo COVID related restrictions, schools, workplaces, and shopping centers are allowing individuals to unmask. From this guidance, a lot of people are asking the question if this new guidance means masks over? If so, is this again a premature move by the CDC or are people just tired of wearing masks?
The CDC’s March 10, 2022, guidance outlines a complicated criteria for unmasking communities. The guidance is based on community data outsourced from local, state, and federal offices that track the health and wellbeing of the community. COVID – 19 numbers have dramatically dropped since the surge of the Omicron variant at the end of January 2022. A lot of people were initially confused by the community data structure.
On the CDC COVID – 19 Community Levels website, there is local and state guidance on masking and unmasking. The map data tool is supposed to guide health officials and individuals to consider “current information about COVID-19 hospitalizations in the community, as well as the potential for strain on the local health system and COVID-19 cases in the community, when making decisions about community prevention strategies and individual behaviors.” The tool comprises geographic data that suggests low to high risk of community infection. The legend defines green is low, yellow is medium, and red as high.
Some health officials criticize this system. Even low risk of infection stills means there is a chance of getting the infection. Even with three doses of mRNA vaccine, there is still a risk of catching the inflection- termed breakthrough cases. Even though most Americans are vaccinated today, there are still people who are either vaccine hesitant, individuals who have not received a second shot, or those who are ineligible. Vaccines are still not approved for children between the ages of zero to five. Other individuals with immune disorders cannot be vaccinated as well. Additionally, even if those who are categorized as high-risk of severe disease – who are vaccinated – may still be facing a substantial danger of getting COVID.
The question becomes if we are unmasking too soon. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was great camaraderie of wearing masks to prevent the spread. Individuals across the country declined vacations, and visits to grandchildren to prevent infecting at risk family members. Grocery stores and other essential services in the community even assigned specific shopping hours for people at high-risk of infection.
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In the new community guidance, the CDC emphasizes that “Communities and individuals should also make decisions based on whether they are at high risk for severe disease and take into account inequities in access to prevention strategies.” With this guidance, governments are lifting masking mandates but allowing businesses and other organizations to take an individual approach. We are seeing states like New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont lifting emergency guidelines county by county and schools are no longer requiring some staff and students to wear masks in the classroom. However some individuals are sticking with masks and only taking them off where the location requires vaccine passport – like in Burlington, VT, and Portland, ME.
In some communities like Anchorage, Alaska – where the last 30-day emergency guideline was passed in November 2021 – another mask mandate might be impossible for the city to pass. The last emergency guideline was met with tremendous pushback as exemplified by two weeks of angry public testimony. Individuals crashed the city council meeting wearing Stars of David on their chest and compared masking mandates to Nazi Germany policies of genocide. They screamed at the city council members, and some threw themselves on the floor of the council floor. They did this in the name of medical freedom.
The CDC’s new guidelines feels like a victory for the medical freedom movement. Doubters of vaccine and mask mandates and believers of COVID – 19 misinformation have held to the command that it is their body and their choice – disregarding CDC guidance. The movement for medical freedom disregards inequities in access to prevention strategies and some scholars suggest is motivated by white supremacy.
However, this new guidance is not a win for medical freedom advocates. It comes at a time where statics suggest a down tick in COVID infections as the Omicron surge passes. Some epidemiologists suggest this new guidance signals we are entering a new stage of the pandemic where it transitions to an endemic – where COVID becomes something we learn to live with rather than emergency. However, people are still dying from COVID infections every day and other epidemiologists are still concerned about the risk of new variants. It is hard to say if we are demasking too soon but is clear that state and local city councils are lifting mandates.
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To keep informed about COVID – 19 guidance check CDC guidelines regularly. COVID- 19 Community guidance and tool can be found at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/communication/guidance.html. The map tool on this website will lead you to your local government page to check emergency COVID mandates, and other suggestions from local governments.
To see what epidemiologists are saying about COVID – 19 pandemic and trends go to Harvard School of Public Health Resource Page created for and by epidemiologists: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/coronavirus/.
To see what decisions you should make your family concerning masking see article by John Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health: https://publichealth.jhu.edu/2022/how-families-can-approach-the-great-unmasking.
To learn more about the medical freedom movement see Peter Holz’ article on the intersection between Medical Freedom and White Supremacy in the United States: https://www.jci.org/articles/view/149072.
To see an example of the Medical Freedom movement crashing a city council meeting, check out this New York times Article: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/13/us/anchorage-alaska-mask-mandate-covid.html.
To support the continuation of masking policies go to the American Hospital Association’s campaign website where you can download a social media toolkit for supporting masking mandates in your local communities: https://www.aha.org/wearamask.