Well, this is what happens when the genie has left the bottle, and it’s not wearing a face mask.
In the words of Christina Aguilera, oh, woah, woah. Covid-19 cases have been on the rise throughout the U.S. This is just two months after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed their face mask guidelines in May so that fully vaccinated people would no longer have to wear face masks indoors, as I described then for Forbes. Since it’s difficult to tell whether people are fully vaccinated because they may do a thing called lying, many state and local authorities soon abandoned face mask requirements all together.
And now it looks like all of this may have been premature relaxation so to speak, leaving a rather messy situation. Of course, politicians say, “sorry we screwed up” about as often as your dog says, “my bad” after he’s left a deuce on your carpet. Nevertheless, some authorities are already having to reverse their face mask decisions. Fueled in part by the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV2), Covid-19 cases have indeed been back on the rise again. For example, the number of daily new reported Covid-19 cases in Los Angeles County have more than quadrupled from June 15 to July 15. Similarly, San Francisco has recently experienced an eight-fold rise in daily new reported Covid-19 cases.
So, as of 11:59 on July 17, the Los Angeles Country Department of Health is requiring all people in the County to wear face masks when indoors in public areas and businesses again. That’s all people as in whether you are vaccinated or unvaccinated. So if you are two years of age or older and in an office, a store, a rave, a disco, or a bar, you should be wearing a face mask. (If you are a one-year-old in a disco or a bar, what the bleep are you doing.) Many San Francisco counties are not yet requiring but are now recommending that “everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks indoors in public places to ensure easy verification that all unvaccinated people are masked in those settings and as an extra precautionary measure for all.” In the words of Demi Lovato, here we go again.
The return of more face mask wearing in these and other locations happens to coincide with World Mask Week 2021, which concluded July 18 and was supported by the Pandemic Action Network, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the African Union, 3M and over 50 other organizations. And to all conspiracy theorists, this was a coincidence and not planned.
“This has come at a time when there’s been debate over lifting of face mask rules,” said Eloise Todd, co-founder of the Pandemic Action Network. “Covid-19 cases have been going up at an exponential rate.” Todd mentioned how in the U.K. Covid-19 precautions have been relaxed even as Covid-19 cases have risen. “Masking is required on London transport even with the general lifting of precautions. People have been getting mixed messages.”
World Mask Week included social media campaigns to emphasize the importance of face mask use. For example, here’s a tweet from the World Health Organization (WHO) that helped launch the week:
And here’s a tweet to conclude the week from the Pandemic Action Network:
Things have changed since last year’s World Mask Week 2020, which I covered last August for Forbes. But it’s difficult to say how much when it comes to face mask wearing.
On the positive side, there’s a much better understanding now among public health experts that aerosol or small droplet transmission of the Covid-19 coronavirus is not only possible but a major way that the virus spreads. For a decent part of last year, the concept of “the virus being spread by aerosols was a minority view,” in the words of Todd. Since then more and more scientific studies have supported the use of face masks. For example, a CDC study found that within 20 days of implementation, face mask mandates were associated with statistically significant dropse in the growth rates of daily reported Covid-19 case and deaths.
Through the latter half of 2020, the importance of face mask wearing seemed to hit home. It became more normal, more acceptable, more a habit. It along with vaccines and social distancing probably kept the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021 surge from being even worse in the U.S.
But a funny thing happened as more and more people got vaccinated. People started focusing much more heavily on the vaccine and forgetting about wearing face masks. Even though Covid-19 vaccines are not like full-body concrete condoms, people seemed to be acting as if the vaccines offered 100% protection. The Covid-19 vaccine is like underwear. It’s going to protect you pretty well from being fully exposed. But you don’t want go to a job interview or a date in just your underwear, unless it’s an unusual job or date. Similarly, relying solely on the Covid-19 vaccine right now when the Covid-19 coronavirus is actively spreading is not enough. Other precautions such as face masks remain very important as Todd tweeted here:
Also on the negative side, some politicians have continued to treat face mask requirements as if they were chastity belt requirements. They’ve claimed that such requirements are assaults on people’s personal liberties and freedom even though the same can be said about requirements to wear clothes and not pee on restaurant tables. For example, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) recently tweeted out the following:
Gee with the U.S. facing so many problems such as widening income disparities, climate change, the obesity epidemic, the opioid epidemic, decaying infrastructure, and people suffering and dying from the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, isn’t it nice to see political leaders focusing on repealing something designed to tackle one of these problems? Not being able to see everyone’s noses and mouths is not exactly a national crisis.
Wavering mask use motivated the Pandemic Action Network team to publish a policy brief entitled “Why Masking Still Matters” because it does. “Things have moved ahead in some ways,” Todd explained. “But in other ways not at all. Face masks have become a tool in the culture wars.”
Todd pointed out that the experiences of the U.K. and U.S., where many people have gotten fully vaccinated shows that “vaccines do not equal the end of the pandemic. With vaccines and other precautions like face masks, we moved so close to normal. Why would we now move away from these measures?”
Again a big problem has been the flip-flopping of some authorities. Flip-flopping may work with gymnastics and pancakes. But it can cause confusion and erode trust when it comes to policy making. “Consistent strong messaging is vital,” Todd emphasized. “But authorities have been changing their guidance. Why not have people wear face masks when it is so simple? It’s cheap and accessible. The benefits can be unbelievable high.”
She added that not using face masks “could lead us back to square one. Wearing face masks is a small price to avoid more Draconian measures. For masking to be effective, it has to be widespread.”
It may be difficult to get people to return to face mask wearing after they’ve ditched masks like soiled underwear. Good habits can take a while to build but only a short time to break. This past Spring, political leaders and authorities let the genie out of the bottle when it comes to dropping face mask wearing. It looks like at the same time they let the Covid-19 coronavirus out as well. The question is whether they can catch it the right way again.