Should you wear a mask? What to do if mandates roll back?

It is a confusing time in the pandemic. Every day, hundreds of thousands of Americans become infected and about 3,000 die. Earlier in the pandemic, such high numbers would have caused mask mandates and business closures. Today, in light of these grim statistics, states are instead relaxing their pandemic protocols.

That’s partly because while so many Americans are dying, even more Americans are dying to get back to normal. States including New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, Illinois, Massachusetts and Nevada have recently announced that they are dropping mask mandates in one form or another, both for schools and the general public.
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However, the federal government thinks it is too early. “Across the country, I know people are very cautiously optimistic as they see the number of cases falling, but what I’m saying is we still have about 290,000 cases a day and the hospitalization rate is higher than ever in our Delta- peak,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said on SiriusXM’s Doctor Radio this week. “Right now, I don’t think, is the time to relax those restrictions.” are still required on trains, planes, and buses, and the CDC still recommends wearing them indoors where viral transmission is high — which is nearly the entire country. The Biden administration even recently started giving away free N95 respirators to help Americans upgrade their masks.

What should you do with all these conflicting guidelines? Is it time to ditch your mask or not?

“To me, it feels a little early because the number of cases and hospitalizations is still high,” said Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and an expert in airborne virus transmission. “They’re trending down, but I’d like to see those numbers a little lower — maybe in a week or two — before we all unmask.”

Whether or not you should wear a mask will depend on your individual concerns. Marr says she will consider removing her mask once care is no longer under pressure. “I’ve been given a boost, I’ve been exposed by my kids going to school. I’m not too worried about my own health,” she says.

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But if you’re actively trying to avoid getting infected, masking in indoor public areas is still a good idea. New CDC data found that people who wore masks indoors were much less likely to get sick than those who didn’t, and N95 and KN95 respirators were found to be particularly effective: People who wore those masks had 83% less chance of testing positive than people who did not wear a mask. “So even if people around you are exposed, you’re still well protected if you wear a gas mask,” says Marr.

Yet people are tired after two long years of masking, and it is not unreasonable to think about life after masks. “We need to get rid of wearing masks everywhere all the time,” said Don Milton, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health who has studied airborne infections for more than 25 years. “We’re just coming off such a high peak it’s not like we’re not out of the woods yet.”

Milton recommends “look”[ing] against the case rates in your area, your vulnerability and the vulnerability of your family network” to determine whether or not you should wear a mask. “You want to see a positive test rate that is very low: below 1%, for example half a percent,” he suggests as a benchmark. New cases per 100,000 people should be about one, he says, “and I want the infection rate to be very low,” meaning the number of new people to whom each person infected will spread the virus, a key indicator of whether viral spread grows or shrinks. Of course, most areas are nowhere near such a low level of virus transmission.

Even among experts who respect each other, there is currently no widespread agreement about how to think about masking, Marr says. “There is no right answer. There are so many different factors to consider, such as cases, hospitalizations, vaccination coverage, severity of the disease and herd immunity.”

As mandates disappear, a potential benefit of a masking reprieve is that people will regain a taste of normalcy, which could give them the power to mask again when it really matters. “We don’t want mandates to last longer than necessary, because then people will lose confidence,” says Marr. “If a wave comes in the future when you really need it, everyone will be burned out.”

There are far less onerous ways to filter viruses out of the air than attaching a filtering device directly to your face. “Combined with dropping masks, we need to up our game around cleaning the air,” says Milton, whose students are currently building DIY air-purifying devices in class for use in their dorm rooms and local barber shops and beauty salons. . Indoor air filtration is one of the few ways to passively reduce everyone’s exposure to SARS-CoV-2, flu, and other viruses.

“It has become really clear in the past six months that vaccination alone cannot control this virus,” he says. “We need these non-pharmaceutical layers of protection.”

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