We’re back. During Omicron’s departure, we briefly felt normal again. A very spreadable new coronavirus is on the rise, and with it, another wave of hesitancy between wearing and not wearing a mask.
People worldwide and in the United States now use the Omicron offshoot BA.2. Counts are going up in a lot of states. Having good masks on hand and being ready to put them on again is an excellent way to be prepared for the possibility that BA.2 will cause a big spike in cases like it did in Europe.
If the thought of having to re-mask makes you angry, you’re not alone. People don’t care about COVID-19 or Omicron offshoot BA.2. Most people in the United States no longer have to wear masks in indoor public places (though in some areas, masks are still mandatory in crowded settings such as hospitals and prisons).
People who have been vaccinated and re-vaccinated are very safe from getting very sick. As soon as I got a break from the virus, I did something I’d always wanted to do: I screamed my heart out in a tiny little karaoke booth with unmasked friends and didn’t even think about it. It was great.
Even though I want to be free, I also don’t want to get sick again. Even for healthy people who have been vaccinated, having COVID can be a real pain, even if they’re healthy and have been vaccinated. Long COVID can still happen, as can accidentally infect my parents. COVID masking is still an effective and easy way to avoid getting sick when your risk of getting COVID rises, even if it’s because there are more cases in your town, a new variant that’s more dangerous, or a lot of unmasked strangers in a concert venue with you.
Read also: 5 Health and Wellness tips for New Year
So how do you know when to Start Masking Again in Omicron offshoot BA.2?
Everyone will have a different answer. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at UC San Francisco, told me that “I get that people are tired, and I get that it’s a lot of work.” He said that the risk could be very different depending on who you are and where you live. To Tom Murray, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the Yale University School of Medicine, I agree with what you’re saying “Like all COVID, it’s not a simple “yes” or “no.” “It’s up to each person.”
Every time there is a rise in risk, whether, at the individual or community level, there is a good reason to wear a mask. COVID is more likely to take you seriously ill if you’re older, immunocompromised, have certain medical conditions, haven’t been vaccinated, or haven’t been vaccinated or re-vaccinated in the past. When there are more cases, hospitalizations, and positive test results in your area, the risk for the whole community goes up, which means more people are at risk.
A person’s level of vulnerability and how much COVID there is in the community also play a role in how masking should be done. The agency calculates the risk of each U.S. county every day based on COVID-related hospital admissions, hospital bed occupancy, and new cases in that county. This year, the rubric is much more lenient than it was last year. People in low-risk counties, which are green on the CDC’s color-coded map, aren’t told to mask or no mask.
They can do what feels right to them, though. Yellow means that people who are very sick should talk to their doctor about wearing a mask. In red counties, it’s a good idea to wear indoor masks all the time. Almost all the counties on the map are in green, but there are a few yellow spots and a few red spots (0.6 percent). It would have been recommended to use universal masking in at least 22% of counties under the old rules.
The new system hasn’t been well-received by epidemiologists and people who work in public health. Murray praised the color-coded map, and Rutherford called the new advice “simple advice that gets right to the point.” However, there are some drawbacks to this method of getting money. For example, the agency might use formulas that don’t account for a certain county’s risk.
He is worried about relying on case counts and hospitalizations because many people are testing themselves and not reporting their results to their local health authorities, and hospitalizations show how the virus was spreading weeks ago, not now. This is why he is worried about relying on these two numbers: The CDC didn’t answer any of our questions.
Other experts say that the new advice, which focuses on individual behavior rather than group behavior, puts an extra burden on high-risk people, who are more at risk if others around them don’t hide. People who are at risk should wear N95 masks because they’re made to keep people safe, Murray said.
Even though the CDC’s recommendations are a good way to think about masking when there are no broader policies in place, experts told me that ultimately, the decision to mask is up to each person. Because even if you live in an area with a high level of risk,
Murray said, “If you’re most comfortable and feel safest wearing a mask, you should definitely wear one. It’s not bad. Grad said that making high-quality N95 masks available to as many people as possible would make masking as easy as possible. Find free ones: (The CDC has an online tool that can help you find them).
But it can still be a difficult decision to wear a mask. It doesn’t matter how hard you try; people’s perceptions of risk can change based on the social setting. I’ve shown up to parties wearing a mask, then taken it off sheepishly because no one else was wearing one, so I did the same thing.
There have been times when the crowd at a concert was more wary, even though I felt safe because my vaccination cards were checked at the door. The mask is just one of many precautions that can be taken to help reduce the risk of getting sick. Other things that can be done to help are testing before gathering and going outside to socialize.
This isn’t the last time that a rise in COVID risk will make people question whether they should mask. Many epidemiologists think that risk levels will change as new strains emerge and more people get sick with colds and the flu during each respiratory-virus season. In light of the fact that mandates are becoming less likely,
Americans should become more comfortable with making their own decisions about how much to cover their faces. That will take some time. So, Murray said, “I think we’re seeing COVID move away from being pandemic and into being a normal part of our lives.” For now, Grad says that “if COVID stays unpredictable, there may be times when broader masking policies make sense.”
As with any transition, this one isn’t easy, and we’ll likely have to hide our mistakes many more times before we figure out what we’re OK with as a society. The thing Grad said that we should try to make normal is masking. People should be able to choose to mask when they feel like it’s important to them.
That will be hard to do in the United States, where masking has become a lot more polarized than it needs to be. When there is a virus, people in many parts of the world put on masks without any help from the government. Maybe, even in this situation, reason, or at least the desire not to get sick, will win out.