A Maskless US Heads Down a Dark Road as the Covid Pandemic Rages On

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In the clash between sound science and political pressure from anti-science crackpots in the United States, the Biden administration and the Center for Disease Control have blinked, announcing prematurely that people who are vaccinated can basically give up masking except when traveling on public transit or visiting health facilities.

The idiocy and mendacity of this announcement, at a time when only 36% of Americans have been fully vaccinated (about half the rate required to stop the disease’s spread) is stunning.

Wearing a mask is not a burden, it doesn’t prevent someone from speaking, from going about routine business, even, as I have discovered over this past year, from running.  What it does do is prevent the spread of disease. Why the unseemly rush to do away with mask requirements?

Several doctors and a dentist I have had occasion to visit over the past few months have all remarked that the reason we did not have a flu epidemic too this year is because there was so much mask wearing going on that it the flu virus never got a chance to spread. That’s a pretty good good “control” demonstrating to even the most pig-headed anti-masker that masks do work.

Maybe we don’t know how well they work at preventing Covid spread, because we haven’t had a Covid epidemic like this before, but we have had a long history of raging flu epidemics, so we know what they typically look like, and there was really nothing this year resembling a flu epidemic.

According to the CDC, through this past February its labs only received 1585 samples that tested positive for flu. That compares to 183,000 positive samples last year, which was not a particularly flu season.  In a WebMD article, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, part of a network of hospitals monitoring for flu cases, said that that as of the end of February they had received none.  By that same date, only one child in the US had died of flu, compared to 195 by that time last year.

While there are several reasons being given for this anomaly, including the fact that people are avoiding large densely packed groups, bars, dances and mass transit. But the fact that for the first time in history, Americans are doing what Asians have routinely done for decades — masking themselves in public settings and on transit during flu season — is clearly also a big factor.

I have some experience with this, having lived in China, Hong Kong (now a tautology) and Taiwan for a total of seven years, in Taiwan actually during the 2004 SARS scare. People in Asian countries, including Japan, Korea and the Southeast Asian countries, routinely wear masks during flu season.  It’s just basic hygiene like washing hands and covering  one’s mouth when coughing.

There has been some dispute about whether masks actually reduce the risk of contracting an airborne virus for the wearer,  which may or may not be the case. What is indisputable though, is that wearing a mask helps prevent the wearer from spreading the disease.

Nobody thinks it’s a big deal in Asian countries.  And it works.

So why on earth, with 36,000 people in the US a day still being reported as having contracted Covid, and with so few Americans as yet vaccinated, would the CDC suddenly do a 180-degree policy turn and say vaccinated persons no longer need to wear a mask outside or even indoors?

If wearing a mask were an awful burden, perhaps this might make sense, but it isn’t the case.  Wearing a mask is no harder than wearing glasses. It’s know-nothings who say wearing a mask “takes away my freedom”  who are objecting. These are the same people who don’t give a rat’s ass about other people. The same people, I hasten to add, who also typically don’t want to get a vaccine and who are likely to either lie that they have gotten vaxxed in order to go into the store to shop or attend a party, or who would buy a counterfeit vaccination card to get away with not haveing been vaccinated.

Surely the folks at the CDC know this!

These same CDC officials, and people in the Biden administration, including the now No-Masker-in-Chief Joe Biden (who seems intent on enjoying his own GW Bush-like “Mission Accomplished” moment),  are saying that the new misguidance on masks will give the unvaccinated masses an “incentive” to go out and get vaccinated

Do they really believe that?  Or is this simply  a hail-mary aimed at getting such people to not be rabidly anti-Democratic and anti-Biden?

With vaccines now easy to come by without even making an appointment, it’s pretty clear that people who haven’t gotten their shot(s) at this point aren’t going to get one. They’re anti-vaxxers.  They either are anti-scientific, conspiracy-enamored whack-jobs, or they are anti-social jerks who figure “Let the rest of the people get vaccinated and then I won’t have to.”  Either way, no incentive is going to get such people to go take a needle in the arm.

It seems obvious what will happen next:  We’ll see a collapse in all social-distancing discipline and people will be back to partying, eating out in crowded restaurants, bar-hopping, riding trains and planes, getting in more fights over remaining mask requirements at those places still making their own stricter rules, and then we’ll start seeing a new surge in Covid infections (and maybe a sudden flare up in flu cases!).

The sad thing is that at long last the CDC has lost every shred of credibility that it had left after a series of “forced-error” changed guidance announcements — most recently one made only a week ago announcing that in fact, the COVID virus is spread on tiny aerosol-sized drops of saliva, not just on large cough-sized droplets, and that these tiny droplets, hanging for hours in the air instead of quickly dropping to the floor,  basically mean any unmasked gathering in a room with poor ventilation poses a threat of contagion even hours after the people have left.

How does that “discovery” fit with the new CDC guidance a week later saying that people who are vaccinated don’t need to wear masks indoors! Not a word about the ventilation in the room in question!

It’s unfortunate this is happening now.  It’s also kind of mind-boggling. Don’t they know at the CDC down in Atlanta that while the rate of Covid infection is down in the US thanks to the belated availability of vaccinations,  it is soaring in Brazil and other parts of Latin America, and also in India, where a fifth of the world’s people live, and even once again in China?

This is a pandemic, meaning a global epidemic after all, not just a peculiarly American disease.  If it is spreading in India, Brazil and in China, count on those with money in those countries — and there are a lot of them !– to buy tickets and fly with their families to safer places…like the US.  Many of those who come here no doubt will bring  new Indian or other variants of Covid with them, making the fact that one is vaccinated against the original virus kind of irrelevant.

That’s how pandemics work. That’s why British PM Boris Johnson just warned Brits that it the new Indian variant of Covid may require parts of the UK to go back into lockdown.

But here in the US we’re dropping the mask requirement for vaccinated persons — even though the vaccines people are getting aren’t known to prevent the Indian variant of the disease.

Or maybe the CDC forgot that this whole situation started in a city in China.

I for one will continue to wear a mask indoors with any but small groups of people whom I know to be as careful as I am, and whom I know are vaccinated and can be trusted when they tell me that.

It’ll be interesting to see if Biden, now foregoing his mask for political reasons, and senior officials at the CDC, will be struck by the virus themselves. It would be fitting result for their perfidy.

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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