Keep wearing masks and social distancing until public health officials say it’s safe to stop
Yes, I know it’s hard. But it’s absolutely necessary that Bostonians—and indeed everyone in Massachusetts, the United States, and around the world—continue wearing masks in public and practicing social distancing. That is, if we want to end the pandemic this year and not in two or three years—causing incalculably greater damage to the public health, the economy, and humanity’s collective psyche in the bargain.
And remember not all masks are created equal. According to various studies, masks from best to worst are: respirators with independent air supplies and N100 masks (which most people will not be able to get); N95 masks (the US gold standard and increasingly available, if pricey); KN95 (China), KN94 (South Korea), FFP2 (Europe), and P2 (Australia/New Zealand) masks (all very good, but make sure they are FDA approved); surgical masks (good); cloth masks with multiple layers (still decent); and single layer cloth masks (not ideal). It’s also known that you get better protection by wearing two masks (say, a surgical mask and a KN95 mask). At the bottom of the mask heap are the thin single-layer bandanas and neck gaiters that runners and bikers (pretending they’re wearing something real while huffing and puffing their potentially infected exudate at hapless passers-by) and right-wingers who want to appear that they’re not as sociopathic as some of their fellow travellers like to wear—which is pointless since they’re the same people that only pull them up over their face when someone is nearby and pull them right back down again when they think no one is looking. The absolute worst choice being no mask at all.
Sadly, what’s happening right now is that people over 50 are getting vaccinated with any of the three excellent vaccines by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson that are being widely deployed in the US—and younger people still largely are not. In many cities in the Northeast, Boston included, most people are continuing to wear masks when outside the home. Particularly when they have to go inside buildings for work, school, shopping, and (unfortunately, given the manifold risks from a still very active coronavirus threat) leisure.
As we look south and west, however, reports indicate that even city folk are already stopping both mask use and social distancing. In suburbs and exurbs nationwide, meanwhile, people have largely ignored public health edicts from the beginning of the pandemic. And younger people, still mostly unvaccinated and feeling like there’s very little threat to them, are now basically running amok everywhere. Which is hardly entirely their fault when many of their parents are doing the same and they’re being made to attend school in person more and more commonly with each passing week.
All while more contagious (and in some cases more dangerous) variants like those from the UK, South Africa, and Brazil—plus homegrown variants from New York and California—are becoming the dominant coronavirus strains across America.
The result? COVID-19 case numbers—which never fully came down from the last spike in January—are up everywhere (with Mass numbers down a bit in the last week, in fairness). And though it’s true less people are dying, the death tolls are significant and would be considered abominable in normal times. Plus with this new spike, younger people are dying. Because as the coronavirus continues to evolve in the human petri dishes that are gyms and schools and restaurants and stupid stupid unmasked parties, it’s figuring out how to kill more kids.
If we allow the virus to continue to evolve, as we are, soon enough variants will appear that render our new vaccines increasingly ineffective and start to end run the new COVID-19 treatments that are being developed too. Which has already happened to at least one monoclonal antibody treatment recently.
So, once again, I feel compelled to offer another Q&A covering some up-to-the-minute pandemic dos and don’ts. In hopes of talking some sense into people who are either unaware of the current scientific consensus on key public health issues or have been willfully ignoring the warnings coming from public health officials heretofore.
Should we get vaccinated?
Yes, everyone who is over 16 should get vaccinated with whatever coronavirus vaccine you can get as soon as you can get it. They’re all, in sum, the most effective vaccines in human history and were developed in the shortest time in history. They are truly a marvel of medical science. And they all still work—though not as well against the coronavirus variants. The faster 70-80% of humans get vaccinated, the faster we will achieve herd immunity, and end the pandemic.
Is there a possibility of our getting a bad side effect or even dying from coronavirus vaccines?
While it’s difficult for scientists to pin severe injuries and deaths on vaccines when vaccinating literally the entire human race, inevitably that will happen to an unlucky few. Vaccine scientists are always on the lookout for such problems and usually figure out which people shouldn’t take particular vaccines after such effects appear. But your chances of getting very sick or dying from the vaccines are infinitesimally smaller than your chances of getting very sick or dying from COVID-19. And if you get COVID-19, you are likely to spread coronavirus to friends, family, and co-workers—which you cannot do if you get a side effect from a vaccine.
What about children under 16?
Vaccines are in production for them right now.
Should our children get vaccinated?
Your children are human beings and therefore can contract and spread the coronavirus. And a growing number of unvaccinated kids who get the virus are dying. Worse still, they spread it to their parents, grandparents, and older brothers and sisters—who are also spreading it—and then some of them die. So get your children vaccinated as soon as vaccines become available for them.
Once people get vaccinated, can they take off their masks and resume their normal activities?
Absolutely not. First, no vaccine offers 100% protection against a constantly evolving virus like the coronavirus and its many variants. And there are already significant numbers of “breakthrough cases” of COVID-19 being found in people who have already been vaccinated. Second, although vaccines offer very good protection from the original pandemic coronavirus, SARS-COV-2, and good protection against its major new variants, they do not totally stop vaccinated people’s ability to get infected and transmit the virus to other people.
Can we do X, Y, or Z once we’re vaccinated?
Keep up with what famed epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci and highly trained scientists of his caliber think is safe to do once you’re vaccinated (and note that they do debate among themselves about such matters). Currently that includes attending small outdoor gatherings with masks with people who are not vaccinated and small indoor (in homes) or outdoor gatherings (in large public spaces like parks or just outside homes) without masks with people who are vaccinated. No medium-sized or large gatherings indoors or outdoors. No activities indoors outside the home without masks … certainly not eating indoors at restaurants (or at work) yet. Because you have to take your mask off to eat and the virus is very good at spreading fast in enclosed areas. And it can evade temporary barriers, filtration systems, and UV lights where present. In fact, even eating outdoors at a restaurant is not yet entirely safe in many situations. Leaving takeout and delivery as the only reasonably safe options from restaurants that make sure their staffs keep their masks on while on the premises. Don’t exercise indoors in public with or without masks. Continue to avoid public transportation. Only use rideshare services with masks on (drivers, too) and vehicle windows open. Only take long trips when absolutely necessary for work or family emergencies, wearing good masks the entire time and practising social distancing as best you can on buses, trains, ships, and airplanes. Avoid staying in hotels and home shares unless there’s no better option. In sum, continue to keep your masks on in most situations outside the home even if you’re vaccinated and keep guests outside your home unless they are vaccinated (and only let in a handful at a time, if they are).
So when can we finally take off the masks and ease up on social distancing outside the home?
When the case numbers start approaching zero and the “R number”—indicating how many people each person with COVID-19 is spreading the virus to—goes below one and stays there for at least several weeks. At that point, it will be much more safe for people in generally good health to start taking off masks in public. Until then, keep wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
Really? Not earlier than that?
Super really. Pinkie swear with sugar on top. Keep wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines from local, state, and federal public health officials when outside the home until they say it’s safe to stop those practices.
What do we say to people that believe conspiracy theories about the virus being a secret plot to do some bad thing—or being an outright hoax?
Invective aside, you tell them they should give more credence to what trained scientists who have spent their lives studying viruses say than what random people on the internet or the street corner say. And remind them that extraordinary claims about the Greys, Lizard People, George Soros, communists, pedophiles, nanobots, or the devil require extraordinary evidence. Anyone who repeats such fantasies and cannot point to scientific research to back up their claims should be ignored.
For the most up-to-date coronavirus pandemic recommendations from top public health officials and scientists, keep an eye on the website of the US Centers for Disease Control at cdc.gov.
Apparent Horizon—an award-winning political column—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Pandemic Democracy Project. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2021 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.