As Mask Mandates End, COVID Experts Fear It’s Too Soon

Rejoice! The mask mandate is finished! Never again will you be mildly inconvenienced by the suggestion that a small swatch of cloth over your face can save the lives of the weakest among us. Who are they to dictate such terms to us? Smell my own breath, will I? Impede my ability to speak clearly to the manager, will they? NEVER, and NEVER AGAIN. Rip that Devil’s diaper from your face and fling it to the dust. Incinerate the badge of our common torment, yes! Do it, now! Rise! To the 18-wheelers, friends, and on to Washington!

Or, you know, not. Sorry, folks. Wrong meeting.

The announcement, however, is true: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “70 percent of Americans can now stop wearing masks, and no longer need to social distance or avoid crowded indoor spaces,” reports The New York Times. “The recommendations no longer rely only on the number of cases in a community to determine the need for restrictions such as mask wearing. Instead, they direct counties to consider three measures to assess risk of the virus: new Covid-related hospital admissions over the previous week and the percentage of hospital beds occupied by Covid patients, as well as new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people over the previous week.”

Well, that clears things right up. To facilitate the transition, the Biden administration will be sending every household a free abacus, along with a credit toward a degree in statistical analysis. No, that’s not true, but it should be. I always wanted to learn how to use an abacus; it feels like one would be a solid new weapon in my arsenal against a deadly airborne pathogen and its variants. Is the plural of abacus “abaci”? If so, abaci for all!

This decision will be felt most immediately in schools, because it’s always best to road-test dodgy decisions on the youngest and least vaccinated among us. New York City has dropped its mask mandate, and Washington D.C. is doing the same tomorrow, just in time for the truckers to get stuck forever at Dupont Circle. God, I hope it snows. The district can impound all those patriotic rigs and dump them into the Potomac at triple the fines for the drivers.

Despite the ladled sarcasm, I get it, I really do, most especially for the kids. My daughter went back to school this morning after February break on the news that masks were no longer needed. The idea of it stopped her cold; she looked at me like I’d told her that not only was Santa real, but he had a Lamborghini and a TIE-fighter parked in the backyard for her (well, the TIE-fighter would be mine). “You can still wear one if you’re more comfortable,” I told her. “Some kids probably will.” This elicited the kind of NOOO that only the internet can truly capture.

My patience for adults — fully grown, actualized big people — who wave the bloody shirt of masks and freedom is so small at this juncture, you could fit it in an egg cup with room to spare for a sofa and a double-stuffed Barcalounger. These kids, though… they have endured every permutation of bullshit with a level of undaunted dignity that shames their elders. When I told my daughter she’ll be able to see everyone smile now, her own fragile smile crept onto her face and her eyes glistened a moment with unshed tears. So small a thing, and yet so very huge for someone who has gone through so much.

I wish I could give her, and every kid, whatever is required to reanimate their lives with the kind of innocent happiness this wretched passage has stolen from them, but I can’t. I wish I could say dumping the mask mandates is probably going to work out fine, but I can’t.

There were more than 65,000 new infections yesterday alone in the U.S., and nearly 2,000 deaths. That’s not “over,” by a long chalk. It is the heartbreaking truth, and we owe our kids the truth at this point before anything else. They have earned the right to be disappointed by the needs of the moment, but we have no right to blow off those needs because we’re tired. Heavy rests the crown and all that.

Plus, it’s important to remember that children under 5 remain unvaccinated. Masks have served as their main protection against the virus.

“[T]he rush to return to normality in light of an improving national outlook for coronavirus cases has many public health experts concerned that the end of the Omicron surge is incorrectly being conflated with the end of the pandemic,” reports the Times. “‘Things are improving, but we still aren’t at a point where we’re getting out in front of this,’ said Dr. Lynn R. Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. Dr. Goldman said the new C.D.C. guidance was comparable to an ‘off ramp’ from the pandemic, even though new variants could still emerge and the country’s health system, and public, is not equipped for another surge in cases.”

Omicron variant BA.2 is the latest nettlesome bit of viral evolution to appear. The new variant raised immediate concerns because of its “stealth” ability to infect people without leaving the kind of traces that are picked up in PCR testing. Further research has shown other ways to track BA.2, however, and those infected appear no more likely to be hospitalized than those infected with other strains. BA.2 may serve to draw out the pandemic, but at present does not present an elevated threat.

All to the relative good, of course… until, perhaps, the next variant, and the next. Masks are the price we pay today for having so thoroughly bollixed the response to COVID two years ago. That botch then makes variants more likely now, which makes masking more necessary. To underscore the sheer profundity of this failure, I offer a proclamation from the 45th president delivered two years ago yesterday. NOTE: These remarks were made after Trump had been told COVID was both airborne and highly contagious.

While an aria of this magnitude deserves to be heard in the original Vogon, we will have to settle for the C-SPAN transcript:

WE HAVE BEEN WORKING WITH THE HILL, VERY, VERY CAREFULLY AND VERY STRONGLY AND I THINK WE HAVE GOOD BIPARTISAN SPIRIT. WE WERE ASKING FOR $2.5 BILLION AND WE THINK THAT’S A LOT, BUT THE DEMOCRATS AND I GUESS SENATOR SCHUMER WANTS TO HAVE MUCH MORE THAN THAT. AND WE’LL TAKE IT. IF THEY WANT TO GIVE MORE. WE’LL DO MORE. WE WILL SPEND MORE. HOPEFULLY WE WON’T SPEND SO MUCH BECAUSE WE HAVE TAKEN IT DOWN TO A MINIMUM AND WE HAVE HAD TREMENDOUS SUCCESS.

AT THE SAME TIME, YOU HAVE OUTBREAKS IN SOME COUNTRIES, ITALY AND VARIOUS COUNTRIES. CHINA, YOU KNOW ABOUT, WHERE IT STARTED. AND I SPOKE WITH PRESIDENT XI AND HE IS WORKING VERY HARD, HE IS WORKING VERY, VERY HARD. AND IF YOU CAN COUNT ON THE REPORTS COMING OUT OF CHINA, THAT SPREAD HAS GONE DOWN QUITE A BIT. THE INFECTION HAS GONE DOWN OVER THE LAST TWO DAYS AS OPPOSED TO GETTING LARGER. IT HAS GOTTEN SMALLER AND WE CAN BE RELIABLE AND SEEMS TO HAVE GOTTEN QUITE A BIT SMALLER.

WITH RESPECT TO THE MONEY THAT’S BEING NEGOTIATED. THEY CAN DO WHATEVER THEY WANT. WE ARE REQUESTING 2.5. SOME REPUBLICANS WOULD LIKE US TO GET 4 AND SOME DEMOCRATS WOULD LIKE US TO GET 8.5 AND WE WILL BE SATISFIED. WE ARE BRINGING IN A SPECIAL LIFT TOMORROW WHO WORKS AT THE STATE DEPARTMENT. VERY, VERY TREMENDOUSLY TALENTED IN DOING THIS. I WANTED YOU TO UNDERSTAND SOMETHING THAT SHOCKED ME AND I SPOKE WITH DR. FAUCI ON THIS AND I WAS REALLY AMAZED AND MOST PEOPLE AMAZED.

THE FLU IN OUR COUNTRY KILLS FROM 25,000 PEOPLE TO 69,000 PEOPLE A YEAR. THAT WAS SHOCKING TO ME. AND SO FAR, IF YOU LOOK AT WHAT WE HAVE WITH THE 15 PEOPLE AND THEY ARE RECOVERING, ONE IS PRETTY SICK. BUT HOPEFULLY WILL RECOVER. BUT THE OTHERS ARE IN GREAT SHAPE. THINK OF THAT 25,000 TO 69,000 OVER THE LAST 10 YEARS AND LOST 360,000. THESE ARE PEOPLE THAT HAVE DIED FROM THE FLU. HEY, DID YOU GET THE FLU SHOT. AND THAT IS SOMETHING.

Here’s the video if you refuse to believe that is real.

More than anything else, the last two years (for me, anyway) have felt like living on borrowed time while waiting for the other shoe to drop, the cough to develop, the fever to rise, the taste of food to fade and the specter of the ventilator to come tap-tap-tapping on the shoulder. It has been so bad, and all that leavens this fact is the reality that it can get worse again like turning on a dime. We test inadequately, we trace inadequately, the first-grade-science solution to maximizing public safety has become another live hand grenade in an election year… and it’s the kids (along with their parents) who take it in the teeth.

Nothing gold can stay, Ponyboy. Enjoy being maskless if it means so much to you. I fear we will come to rue this decision, as we have so many others since this slow-rolling nightmare began.