Some people are still wearing masks. Some are not. The mask mandates have mostly been lifted. No one is quite sure why.
Is it because the pandemic is over? Because masks never worked? Because we’re fed up with COVID-19 and we want everyone to see it on our faces? Or is this just a little respite and we will be donning our face coverings when cases, hospitalizations and deaths spike up again?
Welcome to the in-between time.
The poet Father John O’Donohue described it thus: “You are in this time of the interim/ Where everything seems withheld/ The path you took to get here has washed out/ The way forward is still concealed from you.”
Early in the pandemic, public-health officials downplayed the need for and usefulness of masks. Then we embraced them, as we recognized the virus was airborne, spread by aerosols, not just droplets.
Now, we’ve come full circle. There is broad consensus on the value of masks even though we’re hearing from a loud minority that masks are ineffective. That they do more harm than good. That they aren’t necessary.
So, what has changed?
Not much, really.
The reality is that studying the effectiveness of masks is extremely difficult because there are so many variables.
Let’s take an example. Last week, a study of nine U.S. states was published in the journal Pediatrics showing there were 72 per cent fewer cases of COVID in schools where masks were mandatory than those where they were optional.
A study of this size, involving 1.1 million students and 157,000 staff, is pretty good evidence that masks work and we shouldn’t rush to unmask students. But there are many caveats.
The study was done during the Delta wave of the pandemic; does it apply to the more infectious Omicron strain? We don’t know about the ventilation in schools which is an important factor. We don’t know the rates of the virus circulating in the communities where the schools are located. We don’t know if students are being infected at school or outside school.
As much as anything, it’s a reminder that no one public-health measure works in isolation. Physical distancing, limiting crowd sizes, vaccination and masking are all part of a package.
Still, there is a good body of evidence that, overall, masking prevents the spread of respiratory viruses. And that wearing a mask is better than not wearing a mask, both individually and collectively.
The fact that the flu has all but disappeared over the past two years is a pretty good hint. So is the fact that exacerbations of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) are down a whopping 40 per cent.
Anecdotal misinformation notwithstanding, there is actually no good evidence that masks cause harm. Mask-wearing doesn’t weaken the immune system; it doesn’t deprive your body of oxygen; it doesn’t make it difficult to breathe; it doesn’t harm the academic performance of children.
But is it a bother? An over-reaction? Maybe.
Yet, we have all kinds of bothersome expectations of workers and the general public for health and safety reasons. Workers, in various settings must don hairnets, gloves, hard hats, safety glasses, boots and various other cumbersome accoutrements. Relatively, a piece of cloth on the face isn’t much of an imposition.
Similarly, shoppers are familiar with the “no shoes, no shirt, no service” concept. We expect people out in shared public spaces to wear pants or otherwise cover their behinds. Is a mask that much more onerous?
Pandemic public-health measures are supposed to be temporary. Masks will come off, eventually.
Yet, politicians and public-health officials have not provided a compelling reason why we need to rush this move, especially as we are seeing a resurgence of cases in Europe and Asia.
In dropping mask mandates, public officials have mumbled under their breaths that they may be needed again if another wave hits. But what are the metrics for action?
Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s approach – “If you want to keep your mask on, keep it on. If you want to take it off, take it off” – is a cop-out. The public deserves guidance. We shouldn’t all have to be amateur epidemiologists. Clearly, the more people who are masked, the better the protection.
We should also recognize that some people – particularly frail elders and the immunocompromised – are at far greater risk. Donning a mask a little bit longer to protect our neighbours is not too much to ask.
In this in-between time, at the very least, we should respect individuals’ personal choices, to mask or not to mask, since governments have left it up to us.
We need to cut everybody some slack but also not make the mistake of cutting off our masks to spite our faces.
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