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I am a physician. A scientist. A researcher. I understand the inner workings and rationale behind clinical trials, study analyses, and the development of public health guidelines.

I am also a Black man, a same gender loving man, and a person living with HIV who is trying to get by during the Covid-19 era, just like everyone else. This pandemic has affected me much more than I would ever care to admit, which makes me, above all things, human.

So while many have celebrated the latest CDC guidelines on the fully vaccinated being able to go maskless as a short-term victory, my feelings are more mixed.

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The start of the pandemic seemed surreal to me. My father had just passed away in upstate New York. I had taken an unpaid leave of absence from work to be with my mother and help her handle my father’s possessions, sell their home of 20-plus years, and facilitate her safe pilgrimage to California to live with my sister.

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It was mid-January, 2020, and the rumblings in the U.S. of a new, fatal virus were faint. They quickly became louder. By March, hospitals began overflowing with Covid-19 patients. Medical staff were becoming burnt out and systems were overwhelmed.

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Then came the shutdowns of public spaces and events. Mask mandates. Travel restrictions. Physical distancing requirements that became thinly veiled experiments in human tolerance of social isolation.

It hit closer to home when friends who were feeling ill or had tested positive for the coronavirus started calling me for medical advice. Some were hospitalized; others fought through their symptoms at home. One friend died on an early spring day only months after celebrating his 40th birthday. Daily social media postings from friends and colleagues detailed how loved ones had succumbed to the disease.

It’s felt like one hazy, protracted nightmare that I sometimes I thought I would never awake from. Some days I found it hard to get out of bed and function.

Fortunately, we began getting some good news. Vaccines were quickly developed, tested, and distributed in record time. I got mine as soon as I knew I would be going back to seeing patients. Now, as rates of new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths have been dropping, restrictions are being lifted.

CDC guidelines issued this week inform me that, as someone who is fully vaccinated, I can “resume activities that I did prior to the pandemic.” That means I can often go maskless. The physician and scientist in me leapt for joy upon hearing these evidence-based recommendations. The human in me, however, isn’t as enthusiastic.

Nothing for me is “normal” anymore. While I feel somewhat safer after being vaccinated, I still cringe knowing the element of narcissistic American culture that hijacked the pandemic narrative for the past year is still out there in droves. Too many Americans don’t care about anyone’s health but their own, and that frightens me. I find myself longing for scientists to develop a vaccination to protect me from their particular brand of self-centered recklessness and stupidity that could injure myself or someone I love.

I was in Savannah, Ga., this past weekend. As I walked past an older man and woman to go down a staircase to the Riverwalk area, the man coughed. I almost lost it because all of us were maskless. I surprised myself with how vehemently I pulled away from him and how thankful I was that my head was turned in the opposite direction as I scurried down the staircase, putting distance between me and him.

Despite being a fully vaccinated physician, researcher, and scientist, I’m a human being who is afraid of this virus.

During the pandemic, we all had to grow increasingly comfortable with uncertainty, especially about what the future holds. This is our proverbial first time at the rodeo.

Covid-19, and the subsequent public health measures deployed to fight it, have taken a toll on mental health for many people — depression, isolation, anxiety, insomnia, and more. Much has even been said about this generation of youth and the negative emotional impact this has had on school children.

Covid-19 has presented us — children and adults alike — with a particularly insidious form of trauma for more than a year now. It’s like shards of glass burrowing under the skin in a sick daily ritual we can’t opt out of. A microscopic organism that few people had ever heard of before 2020 has forced us to rely on Zoom calls, FaceTime, elbow bumps, and head nods when really all we long for are in-person conversations, handshakes, and long hugs.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as “a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock, typically involving disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience, with dulled responses to others and to the outside world.”

I’m pretty sure that applies to me.

You can talk all you want about going maskless and getting back to “normal” this summer. Though I know what the science says — and I trust it — you may have to give me a little more time to catch up with you.

The Covid-19 pandemic has left a scar on me that will take some time to heal, and I don’t know whether I’m quite ready to fully ditch the mask and place my trust in a country that has yet to earn it.

David Malebranche is an Atlanta-based internal medicine physician specializing in sexual health and the prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

  • Thanks, David for pointing out the trauma this has caused. The emotional stress has been exhausting and will continue to be. I am an immunocompromised individual with multiple autoimmune conditions who has never let my chronic conditions rule what I do until this pandemic. While the science says “regular” vaccinated people can go maskless, it is less certain for people like me (CDC says ask your doctor..I did) but this is said in passing like this is not a big deal if mentioned at all. Science isn’t ready to say anything definitive yet about people like me (which also includes my family too) and with that uncertainty, my mask will be on in public for the foreseeable future per doctor’s instructions.

  • Let me get this straight, Dr. Malebranch:
    -You begin the article by touting your professional credentials.
    -Up until now, you have trusted the science behind COVID, practicing recommended mask wearing, social distancing, and proper hygiene.
    -Now that the science is showing that vaccinated people need not wear a mask, you have suddenly become a skeptic of the scientific consensus.

    This is a belief based on emotion, not fact. If you say you believe in science and medicine, why are you second-guessing the epidemiologists and virologists who are far more qualified to speak on this topic?

    Perhaps your attachment to masks has ventured into the territory of belief (like religion), and not science. You can’t credibly speak on scientific issues from a place of emotion and belief. I believe that this is more about virtue signaling more than anything else.

    It’s easy to criticize the anti-mask/anti-vaxx crowd as being enemies to science. But now that you refuse to let go of the mask, how are you any different? It’s a fair question.

    I accept science. All of it. Not just what fits my personal worldview.

  • A big spike is just around the corner. It’s a mathematical certainty. 40-50% of us are vaccinated, and the ones who will be circulating mask-less are from groups that have been vaccinated the least. Vaccinated people are invisible to the virus (more or less), but the other 75% in active circulation are ripe for the picking. This virus is alive and well and has gotten better at its work. It loves people in groups. The CDC, I hope, is playing the long game. A big spike in the Summer would be better than a massive spike in the Fall when kids are in class and the weather is cold. A spike now will give our government(s) legitimacy for mandating vaccinations, and such large scale immunity (the herd) is the only way we’re going to beat this thing. Logical argument carries little weight with approximately half of our people, but a spike they can see is another story. So, if you are vaccinated, leave your mask at home. We want people to start thinking that everything is okay.

    • Wow, Dennis. Your conspiratorial conjecture is downright Q-Anon-esque. The only difference is, you actually hope that the elite are deceiving the public and celebrate it. Your contempt for “the other side” is thinly veiled.

      There is no conspiracy. The honest truth is that the people in charge are too incompetent to control everything. The blind leading the blind. A ship of fools, all of us.

  • Thank you for expressing so perfectly what I am feeling. After having survived a brutal run with Covid only to see others barely touched by it and brush it off as not much more than a flu, I am still traumatized. When I got Covid, I was exceptionally healthier than 90% of the people I know. I now am vaccinated but I don’t fully trust it yet. Maybe I will in two years. But at the moment, the covid vaccine is a new thing. And by the way, trust is the antithesis of science. Science is knowledge-based work, relying on demonstrable and reproducible data—there is nothing about it to “trust.” It just is. I will say this, after one full year post-Covid of wearing a mask and not experiencing one head cold or flu, I do trust my mask. I will not go without one in a crowd and I plan to continue to avoid dining in restaurants or drinking or eating in bars or on planes where I have to take my mask off until this virus and its variants are vanquished. And I am just fine with that.

    • I bet you never felt this way about any other disease or condition and yet here you are, and speaking about other people not caring about anyone’s health but their own. And when you are in your car driving remember this number 1 in 100. That is the chance you have of involvement in an automobile fatality. I bet if that number was announced on news media every day for over a year people would stop driving. The virus is not going to be vanquished, it will always be here, so to think we have to keep hiding away until that happens means you will be hiding, and shaming those who prefer trusting in God and our immune system, forever. Have you noticed that no matter how many “successes” we achieve in our battle with covid, we are still being asked to “wait a little longer”, and keep precautions in place “for a while longer”, and so on ad infinitum. If you allow yourself to, you will never discard your mask and never trust science, statistics or your own dust-covered common sense.

  • I suspect you realize your fears are overwrought, especially if you actually looked the data and actually are a scientist. For myself, I will not allow someone else’s fear of viruses to control my life in that way. And it goes beyond “masks are inconvenient.” At this point, masks are more dangerous to my health than I am to others, AND they fog my glasses. They should never, EVER! be worn while driving. They should never, EVER! be worn while exercising or working outdoors. And in this country (America), the government at all levels is strictly prohibited from forcing me (no matter how gently) to wear them in my own home.
    So, enough with this nonsense.

  • I’m with you, Dr. Malebranche. Until everyone (or almost everyone) is vaccinated, including teenagers, I will continue to wear a mask in public places. I don’t trust some of the unvaccinated to stay masked and I think there is an overlap between anti-Vader’s and anti-maskers. I also believe that although the vaccine will keep me from dying or getting really sick, I can become infected and infect others. What’s a few more months wearing a mask! Also they keep your face warm in fall and winter.

    • The logic of vaccines is that if enough people get one then the virus has no available hosts to infect. If someone does get infected, there are limited hosts for that infected person to infect and vaccinated people who get exposed are a dead end for the virus so that is the end-game scenario. What does not play into the game plan and keeps the game going rather than ending or slowing way way down to a drip drip vs. a rushing river as at the beginning, is masking. The mask does not stop the virus, just provides a potential road closed sign and forces it to turn around and go another way. You truly do not understand the dynamics.

  • You are one smart guy to trust science than listen to CDC on going maskless. It is better to be safe than sorry especially when dealing with something unknown. The damage to the body done by covid19 is still not fully comprehended.

    If you look at CDC history on this cover pandemic, you would be wise to form you own judgement and not listen to CDC. They have committed countless blunders during the pandemic, starting with the bad test kit and criteria of who should be tested. This was followed by recommendations to wash your hand but you don’t need to wear mask if you don’t have symptoms. Their advised has cause many people to get covid19 with some dying.

    Even if you are vaccinated, you can still be infected by covid19 but with antibodies, your body will might it. But at the cellular level, you will still sustain damage on those cells that got infected by covid19.

    It would probably be wise to keep the mask on until we have a full grasp of how covid19 affect the body. But since the other people are going maskless, it may be wise to start adding eye protection to since eyes is also a point of entry.

    • Samsa, I totally agree with you. I have had long covid for over a year now and can’t begin to think of risking any chance of getting covid again now that I am immune compromised. I was so healthy prior to this pandemic. More importantly, my son who is 9 is in many high risk categories. I will definitely continue to implement every precaution rather than to trust guidance that seems haphazard. I know that we take risks everyday just being alive, yet when dealing with lowered immunity it seems best to err on the side of caution.
      Eye protection is an excellent addition to a mask. I do wonder what type is best?
      David Malebranche , thank you for this article. I am comforted to know that a knowledgeable individual in the medical field shares my concerns. I hope that you continue to update us of your journey.

    • The logic of vaccines is that if enough people get one then the virus has no available hosts to infect. If someone does get infected, there are limited hosts for that infected person to infect and vaccinated people who get exposed are a dead end for the virus so that is the end-game scenario. What does not play into the game plan and keeps the game going rather than ending or slowing way way down to a drip drip vs. a rushing river as at the beginning, is masking. The mask does not stop the virus, just provides a potential road closed sign and forces it to turn around and go another way. You truly do not understand the dynamics.

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