Thursday, February 10, 2022

Confused about masks? Join the club -- Feb. 10, 2022 column


We went to dinner indoors at a restaurant last week.  

It was a milestone -- the first time in ages we hadn’t gotten carryout or sat outside, and we met friends we hadn’t seen in months. We were all vaccinated and boosted.

Life seemed almost normal. Except that the reservation was for an early 6 p.m. on a Friday, I asked for a table away from other diners and the restaurant was nearly empty when we arrived wearing masks.

We were told we could take off our masks while seated, but the menu requested we wear them when talking with the wait staff, all of whom wore masks.

We enjoyed a leisurely meal and put on our masks to leave, this time passing a boisterous crowd of customers packed in booths. All the customers were maskless, even around wait staff.

This new normal was mildly confusing. We were glad to see the locally owned business with a good crowd, but . . . While we were happy to comply with the restaurant’s rules, others evidently were not. And why wear masks standing up but not sitting down?

It’s not as though the pandemic is history. While numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations nationwide have fallen, an average of more than 225,000 new virus infections are reported daily and an average of 100,000 people are hospitalized daily with COVID-19. On average, about 2,600 people die of COVID every day in the United States.

We all yearn to get on with life, and politicians are responding. California, Illinois, New York and other states with Democratic governors who once were wary about lifting restrictions now race to drop various iterations of statewide mask mandates.

But more people are rightly confused and frustrated. Those who have followed public health guidance to get vaccinated and boosted wonder what we should do now to keep safe ourselves, friends, family members and those whose jobs require them to meet the public. Mask or no mask?

It should be easy to find out, but when I searched the Virginia Department of Health site for guidance, I found the experience frustrating. Clicking on tabs often brought me right back to the same page. A friend had the same experience.

I had better luck with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site, which is sticking for now with familiar guidance. Those up-to-date on COVID vaccinations should wear a mask indoors in public “if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission.” That includes all of Virginia

And almost everywhere else: 95% of U.S. counties have high or substantial virus transmission, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC director, told reporters Wednesday. High transmission is when there are 100 positive cases per 100,000 people per day, and substantial is 50 cases per 100,000.

“Our hospitalizations are still high; our death rates are still high,” she said. “We are not there yet.”

Oft-changing messages have led many people to tune out public health guidance, leading to more confusion.

“Confusion is now the most common reaction to shifts in public health guidance: 60% of U.S. adults say they’ve felt confused as a result of changes to public health officials’ recommendations on how to slow the spread of the coronavirus, up 7 percentage points since last summer,” the Pew Research Center reported Wednesday in its latest survey.

About half those surveyed said the CDC and other agencies are doing a good or excellent job responding to the pandemic, but half said they are doing a fair or poor job.

It shouldn’t be this way. The CDC has changed its recommendations as the pandemic has changed, but its messaging hasn’t been clear.

For people to make wise decisions, the CDC, state and local health agencies need to ensure their guidance is easily available, science-based, understandable and up to date.

As politicians sprint toward normalcy and a mask-free society, no matter the science, we can still choose to wear masks indoors to protect those who are immunocompromised or have other health conditions that preclude vaccination.

Don’t toss your masks just yet.

©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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