This week, the Centers for Disease Control announced that vaccinated Americans no longer have to wear masks in most circumstances. Many are celebrating the pandemic’s end.
But I’m me. I’ve been a turbo-pessimist about everything moderately pandemic-related for over a year now. I’ve started to annoy myself almost as much as I’ve annoyed and alienated friends and family. Unfortunately, I’m not done yet.
Ending the mask mandate is a decision that operates on the assumption that, when all people in a room are vaccinated, the risk of transmitting and contracting the coronavirus is so minimal that requiring masks becomes statistically extreme. That’s sound, and I won’t argue with the scientists on it. Not yet.
My pessimism doesn’t come from the science; the science is great. The problem is the people.
I just typed up a whole piece about how one of the biggest problems we’ve faced during the pandemic is that the people at large can’t be trusted to reliably follow public safety guidelines. They don’t wear masks when they should, they don’t stand six feet apart, they pull down the masks they do wear to cough and sneeze. We’ve watched our neighbors fuck up in these ways and more for a full year. We’ve become accustomed to it. The most paranoid among us have attempted to accommodate. But vaccines changed the game.
Now people have a brand new way to be irresponsible, and they’re super excited to show it off. As just under half of Americans leapt at their opportunities to get the vaccine, half of the country stayed dormant. A few have legitimate health and situational barriers to receiving the vaccine. Some are fearful of its effects and inhabit a space where accurate information doesn’t penetrate their lives as well as misinformation. And then there are the folks who are doing the misinformation, the angry cabal of Americans who have been foaming at the mouth beneath their neck tube tops for the better part of a year.
They’re not going to get vaccinated. A lot of people aren’t. I was lucky to receive the vaccine in January. When it became publicly available, I remember my girlfriend, my brother, and our friends sprinting for a shot at… a shot. Finding one within an hour’s drive was a challenge. But then we hit 33% total vaccination, and now they’re everywhere. Most Americans have access to the vaccine. Close to half of them don’t want it.
The CDC’s statement is that Americans who are vaccinated don’t need to wear masks. But while most of the protection of a vaccine comes from the vaccine itself, there’s a narrow chance that a vaccinated person contracts the virus anyway. The way we make up for that is herd immunity.
If you got this far, you’re probably familiar with herd immunity. If you’re not, I’ll keep it short. Essentially, if one vaccinated person is in a room with one unvaccinated person, the vaxx’d person has a much, much smaller risk of catching coronavirus than their counterpart, but the chance is still high enough that if you replicate it a hundred times and guarantee that the other person has coronavirus, our vaccinated friend will probably catch the disease. It won’t be as bad as it would be for an unvaccinated person, but it’s still a bummer.
But, if both people are vaccinated, that risk shoots downward to the point of being negligible. This is the information the CDC is operating on. If you and I are both completely vaccinated, having a maskless conversation is relatively risk-free. So as long as we all get vaccinated, we should be able to go without masks.
But, as we’ve discussed, not everyone is getting vaccinated. The data shows that. Vaccine disbursal across the country is at a trickle right now.
To that, we can point out that the CDC’s announcement was only for vaccinated Americans; if you’re unvaccinated, you should still wear a mask.
But here’s the problem, one we should all be acutely familiar with by now: they won’t. They’ve rebelled against pandemic restrictions the whole time, and the CDC just gave them a golden ticket to wreak havoc.
Before, the menace-to-society anti-maskers among us could throw their tantrums in the Wal-Mart parking lot all they wanted, but mask mandates kept the rest of us relatively safe. Now, as the country, the states, and organizations drop restrictions faster than the half-million Americans hit hardest by this disease, the risk these people pose skyrockets.
Hospital staff can verify whether or not you’ve received the vaccine and analyze the risk you pose to other patients. Target staff can’t. Waiters and waitresses can’t. And so the proudly unvaccinated are free to run amok.
I’m going to keep wearing a mask. Most of those close to me feel the same. And that’s an option for us. But many of the people I’ve talked to have expressed fears of an approaching time when we are looked down upon for sticking to the mask-wearing ways of tomorrow. Most of us can handle some side-eye from dog walkers and indoor diners, but some of the people I know work customer service jobs. Peer pressure at work is a different game than peer pressure on the street, and being expected to conduct maskless interactions with strangers can be an understandably terrifying prospect, especially after a year that taught us not to trust strangers.
I’ve seen a renaissance in people reminding me that one of the benefits of the vaccine is that it makes contracting the virus more bearable, and that many of the pandemic restrictions were designed to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. Now is a legitimately safer time to catch it.
But I don’t want the coronavirus. Call me selfish, (I guess???) but I’ve talked to people who have had it. It sounds like it sucks big. I don’t want it, and a year of restrictions has taught me I don’t have to catch it.
The worst people in our lives coalesce in a chorus of “we have to get back to normal eventually”. On one hand, no we don’t, but I’m not an opponent of normalcy. It sounds nice. But we’re not there yet.
We eradicated polio, destroyed smallpox. With this pandemic, we’re not even close.
I don’t want to spend five years in pandemic conditions. That’s not my suggestion. I think it’s fair that vaccinated people can start to have in-person meetings. But we have to attend to the broader implications of their ability to do so anywhere and without masks and recognize that the benefits of their vaccinations will be parasitized by the people in desperate search of normalcy who have used every opportunity to ruin our every shot at it.
There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, the train is nearing the end. But the local kids are still playing on the tracks.