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When word came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fully vaccinated Americans can at last safely go without masks in most places, I felt like one of those holdout Japanese soldiers who spent years hiding in the caves of Guam: I was blinking in the sunlight, unable to believe that World War II had really ended.

“We feel naked,” first lady Jill Biden said after she arrived in West Virginia to promote Covid-19 vaccine distribution, taking off a mask matching her pink-and-white spring ensemble.

I know what she meant.

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For more than a year now, we’ve had masks on our faces — or at the ready on our front-hall tables, in our glove compartments, or buttoned to our shirtfronts. I’ve grown as attached to mine as Linus van Pelt was to his blanket, and the thought of abandoning it is liberating but also unsettling. After all, that modest membrane might just have saved my life.

But in recent weeks, the science on masking has become clearer: Real-world studies have shown that fully vaccinated people have next to no chance of contracting the virus, even when they’re around unvaccinated people, and — just as importantly — equally little chance of being asymptomatic carriers who can pass it to others unwittingly.

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That science, though, is now running up against what have become cultural norms in so many places. We’ve grown accustomed to our faces missing the bottom two-thirds — indoors and out — and to looking askance at others whose chins are bare. Suddenly the proper line between safe and unsafe will no longer be as plain as the noses on our faces, and the onus for separating the compliant from the resistant will fall squarely — and surely sometimes angrily — on a range of businesses, institutions, and other private entities, instead of being self-evident.

Already, authorities in mostly blue states and localities — like my own in Los Angeles — have announced that they will take their time and review the new CDC guidelines before revising their own mask regulations.

That’s fine with me. When we moved to Southern California from Washington seven years ago — to a neighborhood adjoining L.A.’s thriving Koreatown — I was taken aback, even a bit annoyed, by the number of people walking their dogs in surgical masks. “What on earth are they guarding against?” I thought to myself. Now I know. This winter’s unusually low number of routine flu cases seems proof enough of the effectiveness of masks in curbing the spread of airborne viruses of all kinds.

Don’t misunderstand: I don’t love wearing a mask. I need bifocals, and no matter what I’ve tried — surgical tape, pinching the metal nose-piece, even wearing the mask upside down — even the most form-fitting mask fogs my eyeglasses. They all play havoc with my facial recognition software. I can’t count the number of times I failed to recognize friends and neighbors by the whites of their eyes alone.

I do know many of those times were in the grocery store, my only regular haunt outside my own home all these past months. No matter the CDC guidance, I know there’s no way I intend to show disrespect for Judy and Lily, my trusted Gelson’s checkers and their brave colleagues in the United Food and Commercial Workers union. For the time being, I’ll keep a supply of clean masks handy in my car, right along with the reusable grocery bags and my customer rewards number.

In this milestone moment, it’s far from clear whether our Covid-era masks will become faded relics like the yellowing World War II ration books from my parents’ childhood, or the fallout shelter instructions from mine. Will they be souvenirs of a forgotten battle won, or seasonal necessities to be hauled out each winter flu season, along with sweaters, galoshes, and gloves? Too soon to say.

For now, perhaps, it’s enough just to be grateful for the privilege that the blinding achievements of science and the bittersweet sacrifices of millions have won us. As President Biden put it, “If you’re fully vaccinated and can take your mask off, you’ve earned the right to do something that Americans are known for all around the world: Greet others with a smile.”

  • Great writing. The masks are actually kind of fun, as many wearers have gotten creative. Also – not being able to see chin blemishes, crooked noses, cold sores on lips (and extravagant botox augmentation) turns focus to the eyes – and I have come to find out that eyes say a lot. The masks’ improving eye-contact really is a bonus.

  • I ho[pe we all have learned to respond appropriately to situations by reacting calmly to make safe choices.

  • Hopefully the epidemic is over except for vaccine refusers, but there are a lot of reasons to fear that is not the case:
    1. Obviously, many people who are not vaccinated will take off their masks. I went to the discount grocery store in the sketchy neighborhood the other day – HUGE number of non-compliant people. MAYBE they were mostly vaccinated. I doubt all were. The one who are not will be spreading it to each other pretty freely. Vaccinated people will get sick too, since the vaccine is not 100% efficacious. The risk may be way down, but it’s not zero.
    2. If the reports from Manaus are correct, huge numbers of people got reinfected there with the P1 variant. Past infection did not protect them. And they were seriously sick, huge numbers died.
    3. There does not seem to be firm field data, actual clinical trials in places P1 was commonplace, proving vaccine efficacy against it. Many test tube experiments showing it ought to work, no gold standard evidence.
    4. According to (possibly spotty) CDC data, the P1 variant was very rare in the US a few months back, given as .1% of all cases, but now it’s 7% in many areas. Overall cases of Covid are way down, it did not increase by 70 times, but the number of P1 cases is up by 5 to 10 times.
    This huge increase in cases has occurred right after the holiday surge, and during 3 months of the vaccination campaign. Hopefully, the vaccines are effective and the increase was due to it being much more contagious, and we are now at a level of herd immunity which will greatly reduce it, but only time will tell.

    I believe, for people in high risk groups, even if vaccinated, the risk of being infected by a variant, probably P1, probably from a vaccine refusing person, warrants continuing caution.

    • Well I don’t know what you are expecting but your comment : “risk may be way down, but it’s not zero” suggests the impossible. The risk will never be zero. Is your risk of getting killed while driving your car zero? Yet you still drive. There are many risks we all take every day without thought, that have a higher occurrence probability than even catching covid much less dying from it. Yet we do these things all the time. Get real. Get over it, and get on with your life.

  • I am neutral on mask wearing. I go along with whatever the social norm in my area is on the subject. So I have been wearing a mask since March of last year, but honestly I haven’t taken many other precautions. Example: I suspect I picked up covid at the gym last year when virtually no one was wearing masks while working out.

    But I have inherited a good immune system, seldom get sick, I am 68 and had covid a year ago with only a 99 fever and a bit of a runny nose. My mother 94 lives with us, she never got sick and did not test positive for covid antibodies, while both myself and my wife did test positive. My wife got sick enough with all the symptoms that I was concerned.

    Here is my con though on wearing masks.

    It’s similar to being a bubble boy. If we could totally protect ourselves from all new germs/viruses then we won’t have a robust immune system, we would be similar to American Indians when Europeans first moved to the US. We would be much more vulnerable to any circulating infections. Since we can never 100% protect ourselves from germs, then it becomes a matter of judgement as to when it is necessary to wear masks or not. There is actually value to exposing ourselves to a wide variety of germs. Depending on circumstances, HIV or the common cold being two extremes.

    We don’t do well with grey answers, we want black and white, either yes or no, not it depends on circumstances, but reality dictates that often the best choice of action depends on circumstances.

    My comment regards mask wearing it that it works to protect from many airborne injections, but is that always the best course of action?

  • “……taking off a mask matching her pink-and-white spring ensemble…..”

    Great writing. Pulitzer Prize material for sure.

  • Perhaps mask-wearing will be the new norm for some people – when they have a cold, cough etc, and must go out. In i.e. Japan this was considered part of politeness, not to give unwanted gifts of your viral infection.

  • What is the purpose of this article? It has no information, nothing. Its not funny or even remotely interesting. So what do we do with masks? I don’t know, I’m sure people can figure it out. STAT has really been going downhill with some of its content. They can’t find anything else to fill this space?

    • Yes, facts are missing. The teaser was “… to declare that they (masks) have saved lives”. I’m not disputing this, but my expectation was that the article would substantiate this claim.

    • There is delightful humor in this well-written article that put a smile on my face. Most certainly masks cannot be ditched, they will make come-backs. People with flu symptoms should wear them so others “don’t get their bug” – because no-one really wants the flu. Wearing masks is now more accepted, so why not wear them as needed / occasionally. No big deal, just keep them handy.

  • Here in the UK, as of 12 May, 54% of the population have received one dose of the Covid vaccine, 28% have been fully (both doses) vaccinated.

    The UK Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has urged caution on scrapping mask requirements completely after 21 June.
    (The date when it is hoped most restrictions can be lifted.)

    “It’s more likely to be that we wear masks in certain places, that we are continuing with hand washing, making sure that we are sensible about the way in which we interact with people in indoor environments,” he said.

    “I’d be very surprised if we go in year on year with needing to do things more than that, but this coming winter I think we need to wait and see how far we get on with the current reduction in numbers that needs to occur.”

    Mary Ramsay, the head of immunisation at Public Health England, told BBC News that face coverings could be mandatory in crowded places for years.

    On the other hand if you favour maverick expertise:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Todd_S._Purdum

    • Your data is interesting. Based on data availalbe in the US, during times we had much higher vaccination rates in some US states, AND high past infections rates, we still had increases in cases in many areas. I think you are not out of danger of another outbreak from a variant, that is, other than Kent or Bristol. At least not until you get a lot more people vaccinated.
      Where I live, the two shot rate recently got to 50% and another 20% have had one shot (I would say “their first shot” but apparently many people do not show up for the 2nd shot now – which research from UK indicates could be a good thing, oddly)
      Despite this being much higher than your national rate, we have a slight increase in cases recently – and maybe, finally a decline, though that may be due to data entry lags.
      Based on our experience, I would say keeping being careful until the vaccination rate is quite a big higher.

    • I think the article is fluff and if anyone reading this or any other one questioning the “safety” of anyone no longer wearing masks should note: no matter how many positive discoveries are made regarding covid, someone will find yet another reason to continue the charade of needing to be cautious. How cautious and for how long – forever? Because if you keep waiting for the “right” level of safety you will never get there. Everything we do in life poses risks, the best example I can think of is driving. Statistically you have a 1 in 100 chance of being killed in a car crash in your lifetime. Compare that to the 1 in 1000 chance of dying from covid. Yet who is willing to stop driving a car? I think there needs to be a worldwide, or at least America Burns the Masks Day and actually stop wearing them for good, no questions asked. Because it is long past time.

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