How Can We Finally Say Goodbye to COVID? Here's the Way

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


March 02, 2022

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine in New York City, where I am the head of the Division of Medical Ethics.

I'm tired of talking about — and you're tired of listening to these discussions about — the ethics of COVID-19. We're all so sick of it, but everywhere I turn, I'm seeing discussions about, "Is it finally over?" As infection rates of COVID-19 begin to go down, as hospitalization rates begin to go down, and soon — we hope — death rates begin to go down significantly, have we finally gotten to the end of this horrific pandemic?

One way to see that the answer to that question is yes is to look at the number of states, counties, and school boards that are saying, "No more masks. We're done with masks. We can't ask our kids to wear masks anymore, particularly in schools." The damage to their social life and to their development is uncertain, but probably serious. In any event, it's just time to say, "We're done with it. It's over. Kids don't get that sick. We can't ask them to continue to bear the masking burden."

What are we to think? Is it time to pull those mask mandates? Is it time to say to kids, "We're done with that. Throw your mask away — although, hopefully recycle it because that's a separate problem with masks. Take them off. Let's get back to normal social interaction. Let's get back to a normal where you're not going to school with teachers and students masked."

What I would say in part is yes, I do think it's time to start lightening up on the mask requirements, but not completely. It depends on where you are. It depends on how old the child is for school. It depends on the teachers.

If you're in a poorly ventilated, small, ancient building with a very crowded class and very old teaching staff, that might lead you to hold onto a mask mandate — at least voluntarily — longer than if you're in a modern school with great ventilation, plenty of room for seating, and you've got kids — maybe high school kids — who understand that they should watch their coughing and sneezing, sit far apart, and make sure that they are not putting anybody else at risk unnecessarily.

It's probably not a one-size-fits-all mask policy. Sometimes masks are appropriate, still; sometimes they're not.

Another thing to keep in mind about masking is that it isn't a substitute for vaccination. The best thing we can do for our kids, our teachers, our restaurants and workplaces, and to reopen society is to get vaccinated. It stops death; 98% of people who got vaccinated don't die of COVID-19, including kids. It makes the disease much less severe and prevents long hospitalization and death.

If we're going to take the masks away, it's time to push and to hope that people will vaccinate their kids and themselves. I know people still are somewhat leery of vaccination, but it is the best tool we've got against all variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and we have to use it more aggressively. It just isn't right to send kids back to school without masks if we haven't given them the best protection possible.

The other thing we ought to be yelling about is "Where are our tests?" If you're positive, I don't think you want to be going to school. If you're positive, you probably should be home and not going to work. However, we don't have enough COVID-19 tests, and this is one of the great policy failures of our government — national, state, local, Republican, Democrat, left, and right.

Biden said he was sending tests to each American household. I applied for mine. They were supposed to be here a week ago, but I haven't seen them. In any event, what we need is four tests a week, not two or four for a lifetime.

If I go to the local big-box store or pharmacy chain, I'm not seeing tests out there. They're off the shelves or sold out and people can't get them.

Testing will help us keep the schools open. It will stop outbreaks. It will help ensure that people don't send their kids to school when they're infected, that they keep them home for a couple of days. It's the best thing we can do, if you will, to control spread still among the youngest kids — babies — who probably won't be vaccinated or among those who are immunosuppressed or the most vulnerable.

We need, if we're going to say bye-bye to COVID-19, a comprehensive strategy. It isn't just a fight about masked school kids. That fight depends on the kid and the school. Even so, it still is incumbent on all of us, and doctors, nurses, and PAs, to push and promote vaccination as the best weapon to prevent death, as the best weapon to prevent hospitalization and probably long-haul COVID-19 for kids. Also, we need more tests.

If we can get that three-pronged strategy going, then I think, finally, we'll be able to make COVID-19 go away and return to normalcy.

I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the New York University Langone Health System, where I run the Division of Medical Ethics. Thank you for watching.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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