September 27, 2021

Mask for what?

Photo by Jesus Zaldivar.

“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,” Rochelle Walensky, Director for the Centers for Disease Control – CDC– announced on May 13. It was the so long awaited news.

The time had finally arrived to catch up with things we stopped due to the pandemic. The announcement felt like a reward for those who got vaccinated. But the exhilaration quickly faded because, per the CDC, proof of vaccination was not mandated.

It meant that the same room where vaccinated people stayed, unmasked non-vaccinated could stay as well. So, the director’s announcement felt like a reward – albeit unfair –  to vaccine rejecters.

“Everyone should be honest,” Walensky said candidly. A friend of mine, Jay, compared this posture to “trying to prevent teen pregnancy by recommending abstinence.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“What I mean is that from extreme cautiousness, even resisting extraordinary pressure to loosen from the past administration, suddenly it’s all relaxed now. And only 131 million out of the total 330 million are vaccinated. Dr. Walensky’s appeal to Americans is noble, but there are Americans and then there are Americans.”

“Aren’t we all equal before the Law?” I asked.  A long explanation followed.

“Don’t you recall that just four months ago, some American ‘patriots’ christened themselves revolutionaries, took over the Capitol and wanted to hang Nancy Pelosi and even Vice President Pence for betrayal?”

“Also, there are Americans attuned with the ‘patriots’ who believe that COVID-19 is pure hype, scientists ‘don’t know nothing,’ vaccine and masks are useless and that to implement public health policies is an attempt against their freedom.”

“In all likelihood, those are the people who for four years loyally listened and read tweets of the former president and his minions, and who over the last four months blindly followed Hannity, Carlson and Pirro’s anti-coronavirus comments and who regularly got (mis) informed in dubious conspiracy websites.”

Curiously, just two days after Walensky’s announcement, about a hundred people rallied in Santa Barbara, California for “freedom, peace and human rights.”

An organizer told journalists that “when the government forces people to do things, to wear masks, to lock down their businesses, to lock down schools, they’re taking their right to freedom of speech.” 

They claimed to be tired of the government’s inability to resolve the COVID-19 crisis.

“Which government was she referring to?” Jay asked. “Because the current administration, despite being in charge for barely one-third of a year, has already vaccinated 131 million people and is distinct from the inoperant previous administration.”

“Do you think if this were spring break week, Dr. Walensky’s noble appeal for social responsibility would sensibilize the thousands of students arriving to Miami’s South Beach longing for wild parties?” Jay asked.

Although Jay’s reasoning sounded extreme at times, I thought about. In fact, let’s check how Americans felt about the pandemic by the end of last February. According to the reliable Pew Research Center, Democrats and Republicans and their respective sympathizers agreed that the pandemic had been bad for the economy (see below). 

However, both parties strongly differed on their take on COVID-19 being a health danger for Americans.

As expected, the different perception of COVID-19 on Americans’ health was reflected in the vaccination intent.

As of today, this is where we stand on the vaccination.

Dr. Fauci’s goal is to achieve herd (population immunity) by vaccinating between 70% and 85% of the population, which means between 230 million and 280 million people. Experts told the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) that 280 million is more reasonable. COVID-19 is far from resolved in the U.S.

It’s true that achievements have been spectacular: reduction of infection and mortality rates, massive vaccination; it’s also true science guided decision-making.

However, the danger remains: 15% (50 million) of Americans would “definitely” not get the vaccine, another 15% would “probably” (or not) get it (refer to the previous figure).

That’s why Walensky’s announcement was surprising and seemed incoherent from the previously so-cautious attitude. Americans are confused. Incidentally, only half of Americans trust the CDC – National Public Radio reported.

And that’s not good. Besides CDC firmer and clearer position, something else is missing: education and clear communication. COVID-19 kills. Scientists do not have all the answers today. As specific actions are imperative immediately, plans are based on today’s knowledge. No other way around it. Americans need to be open to guideline updates. It’s no one’s fault. It’s COVID-19’s fault.

Let’s get Jay to explain: ”for over a year the previous administration consistently denied COVID-19, misinforming Americans by the millions. An intensive and patient education campaign needs to be implemented, in parallel with vaccination and financial assistance.”

“The education campaign should be as aggressive as the one launched on final days of the presidential election that used social media, TV, radio, websites and outdoor [signs].

“In today’s emotionless America, the numbers of deaths became meaningless. Instead of just words, Americans should be shown images of what COVID-19 patients go through: pain, intubation, isolation from relatives and lonely death. The (mis)information coming from dubious sources needs to be countered,” Jay said.

Repeatedly the CDC director mentioned that the agency follows science guidance. However, given the current political and social climate of the country, in addition to guidance from the biological science alone, the guidance from other sciences such as social and political sciences, could contribute to a wide and successful vaccination campaign.

The current administration has already clearly stated that it doesn’t want to be involved in any type of database or vaccination proof mandate. If the government doesn’t want to “sit in the driver seat, it will have to steer” in the words of a prestigious medical journal (See the May issue of The Commuter).

It seems however, that the government is subtly delegating enforcement of practices such as mask usage and social distancing to employers and retail stores. This has so far yielded initial setbacks: Costco, CVS, Home Depot, Target and Walmart removed such mandates.

Let’s wait and see.

Jesus Zaldivar

Jesus Zaldivar, associate-editor of The Commuter, is a Media Production student at NCC. Previously, he conducted biomedical / environmental research in South America, Europe and six states in the U.S. (Contact: jesus.zaldivar@student.northampton.edu)

View all posts by Jesus Zaldivar →
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