Feb 28, 2022 - Health

A case for (some) continued masking

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Public health experts are trying to make the case for keeping masks on even though the CDC no longer recommends them in many public places.

Why it matters: In the push to return to normal, there are lingering concerns about the consequences of letting our guard down, particularly when millions of immunocompromised Americans remain vulnerable to COVID and kids under 5 still don't qualify for vaccinations.

Driving the news: The CDC announced Friday it created new metrics for determining when people should use masks and take other COVID precautions.

  • Overall, the CDC now recommends universal masking for less than a third of the U.S. population, although the final call still rests at the local level, Axios' Caitlin Owens reported.
  • Masks will even be optional at President Biden's State of the Union address tomorrow after Congress lifted its mask mandate following the CDC guidance, the Associated Press reported.

Yes, but: Experts say they hope the takeaway message is that people should still mask in certain situations for the greater good. "I personally will continue to wear a mask in most indoor public settings," Gerald Harmon, president of the American Medical Association, said in a statement.

  • "I urge all Americans to consider doing the same, especially in places like pharmacies, grocery stores, on public transportation— locations all of us, regardless of vaccination status or risk factors, must visit regularly,' he said.
  • "For those following what I do, I'm now game for indoor dining/gatherings in SF, though will still wear my mask elsewhere inside (ie, shopping)," tweeted Bob Wachter, chairman of UCSF's Department of Medicine.
  • George Washington University public health professor Leana Wen endorsed the CDC guidance in the Washington Post. However, she tweeted: "The Biden admin must ramp up antiviral treatments and preventive antibodies... & make N95s free of charge to all who want to keep masking."

On the other hand: "We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing," said CDC director Rochelle Walensky at a news briefing Friday, NPR reported.

  • Those guidelines, NPR wrote, are also meant to help people know if public health risks worsen to a point where they'll have to don their masks again — a key concern among public health experts.

What to watch: This comes as the Biden administration plans to accelerate the return of the federal workforce this week, people familiar with the plan told Axios' politics team.

  • An administration official told Axios over the next several weeks, the White House will begin a broad push for a return to normal.

The bottom line: This comes back to the point in a recent widely shared piece by The Atlantic's Ed Yong asking what exactly do we, as a society, owe the vulnerable?

  • For many of the experts, the answer, at the very least, is some continued voluntary masking.
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