For more than a year, public health officials have kept telling us that masks save lives. They warned us to keep our distance from our neighbors, who have turned into disease carriers right before our eyes.
Now they are telling us that once we are vaccinated, in most cases we no longer have to wear masks or physically distance ourselves – even indoors. For many people, myself included, this seems difficult to reconcile with so many long months of masking and physical distancing and sacrificing our social lives for fear of Covid-19.
What should a fearful, pandemic tired (and suspicious) soul do?
First, it’s important to emphasize that the drastic mask-wearing and physical distancing-recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month – a policy passed by California as of Tuesday as part of a broader reopening – is for people only applies who are already fully vaccinated.
But even if you’ve been vaccinated, you don’t have to change your behavior an iota if you feel uncomfortable.
“Nothing in the CDC guidelines says to stop wearing a mask,” says Dr. José Mayorga, Managing Director of UCI Health Family Health Centers. “It’s a recommendation, but if you choose to wear one, that’s fine. You shouldn’t be stigmatized. “
Mayorga has lost five relatives to Covid, including a favorite aunt, and he knows from his own experience how difficult it can be to return to so-called normalcy.
“Many people are not directly affected by Covid,” he says. “But for those of us who have been, it’s natural to worry or be afraid and think, ‘Oh, can I take my mask off? But is it really safe? ‘”
Some people are just naturally cautious and will be in no hurry to throw off their masks and rub their elbows with unmasked strangers. “I know that realistically I can do pretty much anything when I’m fully vaccinated, but mentally it’s scary,” said Shannon Albers, 36, from Sacramento, who received her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine on May 27th. “It gets weird after a year boring into us ‘wear a mask, wear a mask, wear a mask’ to be with a bunch of people who don’t wear masks.”
At the start of the pandemic, the CDC said masks were not required. Then it changed its guidelines so forcefully that masks became an indispensable part of our wardrobe. Now the advice has changed again.
“Scientists understand that this recommendation is being revised based on new research,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, professor of psychology, public health and medicine at the University of California-Irvine. “But that could sound very confusing to the general public.”
Many people feared early on that they would get infected from surfaces with the coronavirus and even disinfect food before putting it away. Now it is believed that the virus mainly spreads through the air, and the idea of spraying or wiping off anything you bring into the house seems silly.
We don’t know how long the vaccines will protect, but it is becoming increasingly clear that vaccination reduces the risk of infecting others.
“People who have been vaccinated have a very low risk of infection; they can do what they want, ”says dr. George Rutherford, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of California-San Francisco. “I think we’re in pretty good shape and I think it’s going to be a pretty disease-free summer.”
In California, the rate of positive Covid tests has dropped from a seven-day average of over 17% in early January at the height of the winter surge to below 1% now. The number of hospitalized Covid patients has fallen nationwide from over 22,000 to under 1,300 in the same period.
Around 46% of the Golden State’s residents were fully vaccinated, falling short of many other states but above the national rate of just under 43%. A few million more have built up immunity after a Covid infection.
As more people receive protection, the Covid virus finds bodies less susceptible, further reducing transmission and creating a downward spiral in the number of cases.
Being indoors with other people who you know have been vaccinated can help dispense with masks. Would you like to cook dinner for a group of vaccinated friends you haven’t seen in several months? Carpe diem – and don’t worry about wearing masks or sitting at a distance.
But if you find yourself in a mixed crowd – at a grocery store, for example – and don’t know who is vaccinated, wear a mask even if your personal risk is small. When workers wear masks it is a matter of respect to wear one yourself. Some people may be nervous because they are there – for example, those who have weakened immune systems or cannot be vaccinated for other health reasons – and they will not know if you got your vaccinations.
“Forget the medical benefits,” says Bradley Pollock, assistant dean of public health sciences at the UC-Davis School of Medicine. “If you wear a mask, people who are not vaccinated need not feel uncomfortable around you. So it’s a question of courtesy. “
The presence of children is another good reason to mask yourself. Most children between the ages of 12 and 16 have not yet been vaccinated, and those under the age of 12 may not be. You will likely have to wear masks to school this fall.
And while children are not nearly as badly affected by Covid as adults and are not efficient carriers of the virus, thousands of children have been hospitalized with it – including around 4,000 nationwide who have been diagnosed with terrifying multisystem inflammatory syndrome.
Mayorga, who is fully vaccinated and has young children, says he wears a mask “to protect them and to show good behavior”.
Public health experts agree that vaccinating as many people as possible, including children, is the way out of the pandemic.
But the vaccination rate has slowed down lately. One of the greatest contributions you can make to the common good right now is to get vaccinated – and help others do the same.
Some people are not vaccinated because they are not mobile and cannot keep an appointment. Report to older neighbors and if they are not vaccinated and need a lift, offer to drive them. You can also check with your local aging department, community groups that care for the elderly, public health authorities, or hospitals to see if they are looking for drivers.
Perhaps the greatest effect you can have is convincing friends and family to get the vaccine – and then pushing them to convince others.
If you think the vaccines were introduced too quickly to be safe, let them know that research on coronavirus vaccines has been ongoing for more than a decade. Point out that hundreds of millions of Covid vaccinations have now been given and serious side effects are rare – and are carefully monitored by officials.
You may also need to refute the popular notion that in a few years time the vaccine could suddenly have dire, unforeseen health effects. “It just doesn’t happen,” says Pollock.
Expect to encounter resistance at first, but be persistent. It may take numerous conversations to ease anxiety, but your close friends will be listening.
“If your best friend tells you he did this, it’s very influential – more than just a talking head,” says Pollock.
This story was produced by KHN, an editor of California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.
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