It’s becoming rarer and rarer to see masks when you go out. If you live in a place where people were once good about masking up, chances are only a handful still do it. If your area is one where masks were rare to start with, I’d bet you haven’t seen a masked face in a while. But the pandemic isn’t over, and more than a few people who evaded the virus for over two years are now coming down with a cough. So is it worth putting a mask back on even if no one else is? Yeah, I’d say so.
Your risk of catching COVID is still really high
Almost a year ago, the CDC put out a set of recommendations based on what transmission is like in each county. They said that if there are more than 50 new cases per day per 100,000 people, then transmission is “substantial” and we should all mask up. If cases rise to 100 per 100,000, then transmission is “high.” But then they changed the definitions. Today, my county has 237 cases per 100,000, and under the CDC’s current map, our risk is only “medium.” It’s a classic case of moving the goalposts.
The new criteria, adopted earlier this year, are based on hospital admissions. Overnight, our mostly-red (“high”) country was changed to a mostly-green (“low”) map. It’s true that case data is becoming less useful, since more people are testing at home and those cases are usually mild enough to never make it into any formal reporting system. But the overall effect is to make it look like our risk is lower than before. It’s not.
Something similar happens when a municipality or a federal agency stops enforcing masking guidelines. A federal rule required masks on public transportation, including in airports and on planes, until a court challenge blocked it earlier this year. I flew recently, and I’d say more than 90% of my fellow passengers wore no masks at all. (Individual airlines could have chosen to continue enforcing a mask rule of their own, but the rule had always been contentious with some passengers, to the point of being dangerous to staff, and so it probably seemed easier to drop the issue.)
COVID cases reportedly skyrocketed among TSA officers just after the federal mask rule fell. COVID is still very much out there.
Masks still work
But the facts about wearing a mask have not changed. If everybody in a room wears a mask, that room is safer for an unmasked person who happens to be there. But even if you are the only one wearing a mask—on an airplane, let’s say—your mask still protects you.
Cloth masks provide a small amount of protection. Loose-fitting surgical masks are perhaps a bit better. But the best protection is with a well-fitted N95 or similar mask. I still wear one when I shop or travel. (I did get COVID recently, but I caught it from a family member who is not as conscientious about mask wearing.)
As so many of us are finding out, you can be vaccinated and boosted and still catch COVID. Your illness is likely to be a lot less severe than an unvaccinated person’s, but it’s no fun to be sick and it’s still a gamble when it comes to complications like long COVID.
It sucks that we can no longer rely on getting much protection from others. But high quality masks are still available, and they still work. If you’re concerned about catching COVID—as you probably should be—it’s not a bad idea to keep your mask on.