No one wants to say it: We need to mask up again

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A modern-day lesson can be learned from what happened on May 1, 2003. Under a blue sky, then-President George W. Bush was nationally televised flying in a Navy fighter off the shores of San Diego, landing on an aircraft carrier displaying a massive banner with the words “Mission Accomplished” in red, white and blue. It was the mother of all photo-ops intended to send a message to the country, and the world, that the war, Operation Iraqi Freedom, was over. 

But the war wasn’t over. It wound up lasting several more years. In our haste to spike the football, America declared victory too soon.

Eighteen years later, we find ourselves in an oddly familiar place. On May 13, 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) optically declared the pandemic over when it lifted masking requirements and social distancing practices for the fully vaccinated. “We have all longed for this moment,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyFauci says COVID-19 is now an ‘outbreak among the unvaccinated’ Merkel aide says unvaccinated may face restrictions in Germany Arkansas governor says it’s ‘disappointing’ vaccinations have become ‘political’ MORE said at the time. President BidenJoe BidenHouse Republican calls second bout of COVID-19 ‘far more challenging’ Conflicting school mask guidance sparks confusion Biden: Pathway to citizenship in reconciliation package ‘remains to be seen’ MORE said it was a “great day for America.” The decision was hailed by most Americans who had grown tired of wearing masks, yet many public health experts were concerned the move was premature. 

Those experts were right, and many including former Surgeon General Jerome Adams are calling for a return to mask mandates. COVID-19 cases are surging, spiking 66 percent over the last week alone and up 145 percent from just two weeks ago. Eighty-three percent of new cases are the Delta variant, which the CDC director herself acknowledges is “highly transmissible.” Statistics show hospitalizations up 26 percent last week (and more than 50 percent from two weeks ago), and deaths are up 13 percent. The numbers portray a nation in denial; we want to believe COVID-19 is behind us, but the facts tell a very different story. We need to put politics aside and let the data guide our policy decisions.

The alarming rise in cases makes a compelling argument for a renewed full-court push to highlight the importance of vaccinations and utilize the full complement of public health strategies in America. The majority of recent hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 (97 percent and 99.5 percent, respectively) involve the unvaccinated. Immunization remains the best protection against death and serious health impacts from COVID-19 infection. Mask-wearing, even by the vaccinated, is a valuable strategy to limit transmission of the virus. 

The rise of the Delta variant clearly demonstrates that we are not in a post-pandemic world. As we’ve seen from recent reports, U.S. Olympic athletes, major league baseball players and Congressional staff members have all contracted the virus despite being vaccinated. What’s more, new claims have surfaced that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may not be as effective in combating COVID-19 as initially believed. And anyone who contracts the virus is capable of transmitting it to others, giving COVID-19 the opportunity to continue to mutate. 

No one wants to go back to wearing masks again. But people are dying, and if we can’t voluntarily abide by the public health measures that we know to be effective at minimizing the spread of the pandemic, such as mask-wearing, state and federal mandates must be considered. We must deploy every method possible to reverse the current trend of infection. Continued social distancing, hand washing, increased testing — and yes mask-wearing — must be revisited to save lives and reduce suffering. 

Some will say reinstating mask mandates only punishes the vaccinated. But that isn’t a persuasive reason for the CDC to not reinstate a mask mandate. Public health professionals are in the business of following the science, and right now the science clearly shows that COVID-19 is winning and will kill thousands more unless we do everything in our power to fight it.  

Leadership must come from the top. We need our elected officials — including Biden — to wear masks in public again to set an example for the rest of the nation. We are pretending that COVID-19 no longer exists, and in doing so we are actively complicit in fueling its resurgence. We are heading in the wrong direction; it will demand continued sacrifice, on all our parts, including masking, to get COVID-19 back under control.

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.

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