New mask mandates: it's time

Credit: Courtesy of Ederporto via Wikimedia Commons Credit: Courtesy of Ederporto via Wikimedia Commons
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On Feb. 25, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) — for the second time — told Americans they could take off their masks. Nearly a month later, the country is hurtling, much like it did last summer, towards a post-COVID normal.

Yet this doesn’t feel the same as last time around. On May 13, 2021, the COVID mask guidance was scrapped — to huge fanfare. President Joe Biden gave a victory speech in the Rose Garden, and within hours, states across the country had eliminated restrictions that their citizens had endured for 14 months. Going into proms and graduations, and the only-sort-of-jokingly named “hot vax summer,” COVID seemed to be over. Perhaps we were naïve then, or perhaps we’re just jaded now.

Because this time, after a wave of the Delta variant prompted people to put masks back on and covered students’ faces in cloth just in time for the new school year, and after the Omicron variant seemingly infected everyone and their mother, the government telling Americans that they didn’t have to mask up anymore didn’t even make the front page of the New York Times. Nobody is proclaiming that the pandemic is over in the U.S. — even as life everywhere, including universities, is increasingly going back to normal.

That includes Carnegie Mellon. As of March 28 — next Monday — masks will be optional on campus. At least to me, this seems like a rational decision.

First, COVID-19 case rates are plummeting, both on campus and in the broader community. Nationally, cases are lower than they have been at any point since the brief respite from the pandemic that we enjoyed last summer, and Allegheny County’s hospitals have plenty of breathing room. Carnegie Mellon’s cases are higher, per capita, than the broader community, but only barely; according to the university’s dashboard, our campus had just 16 cases in the week of March 1 to March 7. Despite the stagnant masking policies, in a given interaction, the risk that someone is infected with COVID is now about 30 times lower than it was two months ago, an astonishing difference.

Second, people can protect themselves from COVID if they want to, without a community effort. In the beginning of the pandemic, stopping the spread of COVID-19 required all hands on deck; even a few short months ago, the old axiom that “my mask protects you and your mask protects me” was very much true. Surgical masks were made widely available around campus, but if someone was wearing one in a crowd of unmasked people, they didn’t have very much protection. In order to avoid getting infected, we all relied on each other. But that’s no longer the case. For whatever reason, it took Americans 21 months to adopt high-quality face coverings, but when we came back to school in the midst of the Omicron surge, N95 and KN95 masks had largely replaced the cloth masks we’d been accustomed to wearing before. These masks protect the wearer very well. A study from Tokyo in December found that, against the Omicron variant, N95 masks had 79 to 90 percent effectiveness in protecting the wearer, regardless of whether others around them were masked.

Third and finally, COVID has been largely defanged. Without downplaying the high death tolls still plaguing the unvaccinated population, someone up-to-date on COVID vaccinations is highly unlikely to die — up to 93% less likely than an unvaccinated individual. Just last week, the United Kingdom announced that the infection fatality rate (a measure of the lethality of a virus) from COVID has dropped below that of the flu, something that would have seemed unthinkable a year ago. This is from a combination of vaccines, boosters, increased immunity, and the less-lethal nature of the Omicron variant. The new data shows that for those over 80, the most vulnerable, COVID now has a death rate of around 1 in 200 (0.9 times that of the flu), while for those age 20, the death rate is now 1 in 250,000, one-tenth that of seasonal flu.

All of these factors combine to make mask-wearing far less important than it used to be, and make removing the mask mandate a wholly reasonable choice. Yet, people need the space to make their own decisions. Many people will choose to keep wearing masks, and they should have the freedom to make that decision — not only from university policy, but from peers, too. Likewise, many people will choose to take them off, and they, too, should be allowed to make that decision for themselves without judgment. (For obvious reasons, those who have COVID symptoms or were recently exposed should keep their mask on.) If cases stay low, there is nothing wrong with campus being half-masked and half-not, simply based on people’s personal risk tolerances.

It is worth noting that the pandemic is not over, and this period of back-to-normal bliss could well end up being short-lived. European nations are seeing cases rise because of a new subvariant of the virus, and while we all hope that our country has built up enough immunity that hospitalizations and deaths don’t increase again, it’s impossible to know for sure. But, even though the specter of having to mask again remains on the horizon, for now, we can take them off, safely, and enjoy the fresh air. All of our collective hard work over the past two years has gotten us to this point, and now we can relish in it.