Judy Stone, MD

Disclosures

July 01, 2021

The CDC has certainly made a mess of masking advice. I understand that science changes and recommendations evolve, but I'm getting whiplash over this one.

I've pretty much avoided people since March 2020 and rarely went out except for medical appointments or an occasional outdoor walk with a friend.

In recent weeks, I've had to visit both a UPMC facility and WVU. Masks are still required in hospitals, and in both, some staff and patients ignored the rules and the signs. I encountered registration clerks at both wearing their masks below their noses, which is totally worthless. Trying to reason with them was wasting my breath. I also asked an older male patient to put on his mask, and he yelled at me. I felt okay addressing him in the hospital. Had he been in front of Walmart, I might have worried about being physically attacked for doing so.

Our Governor Hogan has made a mess, too, by eliminating mask mandates in Maryland. He did so claiming a 70% vaccination rate. But at the time, our COVID-19 vax rate in Western Maryland was a whopping 39%. I live in Trump country, where people believe it is their G-d-given right to "freedom" and liberty, and damn who they hurt in the process of going maskless.

Last week, my husband and I set off on our grand adventure, driving to Maine for a vacation. It's been quite an adjustment. The first shock came at rest stops on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. At our first stop, I think we were the only folks who were masked. That changed further along. Seeing people crowding together in lines for fast food made me have some regrets for having left home.

We're now ensconced in Maine, but the culture shock continues. I continue to wear a mask indoors in businesses, but most people don't. Even going to the grocery is anxiety-provoking. On the one hand, I know Maine is relatively safe — the notable exception being an impressive outbreak from a wedding last fall. (There were more guests than allowed, and masking and distancing guidelines were ignored. The 55-guest wedding led to infections in 155 people and killed seven as COVID-19 spread to a nursing home and a jail. None of those who died attended the wedding. The pastor officiating the wedding, Todd Bell of Calvary Baptist Church, reportedly "urged people to put their trust in God over government and questioned the wisdom of masks" and said his "church is encouraging congregants not to wear masks." Despite that outbreak and deaths, Bell defiantly continued to hold unmasked services.)

On the other hand, Maine is now drawing tourists from all over, bringing whatever new COVID-19 variant along with them. This makes me uneasy.

It's hard to know how to interpret masking now. Signs say, "Mask if unvaccinated." I don't want people to mistake me for a science-denying Republican! I want to get a mask saying, "Vaxxed but wary," or some such.

Last month, the CDC said vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks when indoors, except on public transportation, in jails, and in homeless shelters.


 

This week, Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, cautions that the Delta variant is coming — more transmissible and more virulent. She expressed concern that the virus will soon evade current vaccines.

Tom Frieden, the former CDC director, just tweeted similar alarm about the variants:

https://twitter.com/DrTomFrieden/status/1406596456803454978

To my mind, there is a serious disconnect between warning about such concerns about variants and yet telling people who are vaccinated that they can now go back to "normal" life. Does the CDC really think they'll be able to put the cat back in the bag and get people to mask again when the next COVID-19 wave hits? I understand the political pressures to lighten up restrictions and dangling this reward for vaccination to some people. But here's the reality: Some people are too stubborn to listen to reason or science.

We know that mutations and variants of concern are likely to emerge in areas where there are a large number of unvaccinated people and that a good way of spreading the new mutations is by travel. We also know that COVID-19 has airborne transmission. So why would you encourage people to drop masks and let down their guard at the start of the summer vacation period? Experts predict that we will have another serious wave of infection with the Delta variant by fall. Do you think people will resume masking and distancing then?

Before, in the heights of COVID-19, I could tell someone's beliefs by whether they were wearing a mask or not, and I knew to stay away from those who refused to wear a mask to protect themselves or others. Now it's Alice in Wonderland and everything is topsy-turvy. I can't tell. I guess Bill Gates' chips have failed to transmit properly.

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About Dr Judy Stone
Judy Stone, MD, is an infectious disease specialist and author of Resilience: One Family's Story of Hope and Triumph over Evil and Conducting Clinical Research: A Practical Guide.

She survived 25 years in solo practice in rural Cumberland, Maryland, and now works part-time. She especially loves writing about ethical issues and advocating for social justice. Follow her at drjudystone.com or on Twitter @drjudystone.

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