On Feb. 25, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Americans living in counties with decreased COVID-19 community transmission could visit public indoor places without their masks on. At the time, that encapsulated 70% of all Americans.
This wouldn’t be the first time the CDC has changed its mask guidance. In May 2021, it dropped its recommendation of mask-wearing for vaccinated adults. A cycle seems to be repeating. As case numbers ebb and flow, the agency is more likely to revise its mask recommendations.
But this begs numerous questions. What if cases don’t stay down? What if a new variant emerges? Will mask guidance change again?
The short answer is yes, mask guidance will likely evolve as we adapt to mutations of the virus. And as we revert to maskless public interaction, we must be willing to put our masks back on if guidance changes.
We’ve already seen requirements change in the wake of new variants. When delta became the primary variant in the U.S. last summer, it was apparent that vaccinated people were still transmitting the virus. This was contradictory to prior CDC knowledge, and chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said the situation had changed since the revised policy was announced in May 2021. After just a few weeks of freedom, masks were once again recommended.
I remember being somewhat frustrated that I had to put my mask back on. I had just visited New York City and traveled a bit in the early summer months, and I hadn’t gotten sick. Why was it any different now?
What I failed to realize is that COVID-19 mutates quickly, and with mutations come additional precautionary measures. The delta variant stunned health professionals because of how much more transmissible it was than previous dominant strains of COVID-19. To slow case numbers in a variant that was still infecting vaccinated people, the CDC was in a compromising position, forcing them to revise previous recommendations.
We saw the same thing happen with the omicron variant this past winter. My primary source of excitement when getting the COVID-19 vaccine was that I could spend time with family and friends without worrying about getting them sick. Dr. Fauci even made a statement in October 2021 reassuring Americans that we could safely enjoy Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas with our families.
But the rapid spread of the highly-transmissible omicron variant in December 2021 posed a new risk to gathering with loved ones. The variant cast a shadow over holiday excitement. When I returned to my hometown, many plans got canceled and parties got rescheduled as people attempted to ward off any sickness. Health officials’ recommendations seemed to tighten restrictions once again.
That said, we must remember mask guidance has changed before and it will change again. The CDC has acknowledged that as cases and hospitalizations rise and fall, specific sections of the country will face adjusted mask recommendations.
In an age when Republican representatives call mask mandates “draconian” on the floor of the House of Representatives, I worry not every American will be willing to re-mask if asked. But I urge people to take the time to understand the logic behind newly recommended precautions.
I am growing just as tired of pandemic life as everyone else, but if donning a mask in the future will keep others from getting sick, I will wear my KN-95 with pride.
Chris Sciortino (he/him) is a junior studying theater and public relations. He is involved with the Queer Student Union and College Democrats at IU.