Art by Vivian Hsia
California dropped its mask mandate Feb. 16 and L.A. County dropped its mandate Feb. 25. Pepperdine followed suit March 7, making masks optional on the Malibu campus. In all three cases, authorities cited falling COVID-19 infection numbers as the main reason.
Dropping mask mandates is grossly reckless behavior, which will lead to the further spread of COVID-19, more people with long haul COVID-19 symptoms and preventable deaths. The COVID-19 virus has already taken 970,082 American lives according to The New York Times on March 21.
Monmouth University reported, based on survey results, support for masking and social distancing among Americans dropped from 63% to 52% from September 2021 to January 2022. Politicians are getting the message masking is less popular with voters and easing masking requirements.
“[This] decision is a politically based one because there is tremendous pressure coming upon everyone to get rid of the pandemic and to stop dealing with it because we’d all tired of this pandemic,” said Biostatistics and Epidemiology expert Dr. Stanley Weiss in a Feb. 7 interview. “It is not scientifically based and I don’t think it is a rational approach based upon what we’re seeing,”
Counties can still keep their own regional mask mandates, but California dropped its statewide mask mandate.
Keeping mask mandates is a good idea with news that existing vaccines are not effective at stopping the speed of the Omicron variant. For example Pfizer announced its COVID-19 vaccine is only 12% effective at preventing the Omicron strain in children ages 5 to 11.
Dropping the mask mandate assumes the existing vaccines work to prevent infection and transmission of the virus but studies show this is not true. COVID-19 vaccines do not reliably prevent infection and virus transmission.
With current vaccines being an imperfect fit for the Omicron strain, taking away the one layer of protection that could slow down virus transmission rates makes no logical public health sense.
LA County’s Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer continued encouraging residents to mask wear despite the lack of mandated requirement indoors.
“Although masking is not required, both the state and our Public Health Department are strongly recommending masking, regardless of vaccination status, in indoor public spaces,” Ferrer said March 7.
Masking still is required in high-risk settings such as on public transit and health care facilities, including at Pepperdine.
While some people might consider that an apocalyptic thought, the reality is this virus is still circulating. It could mutate at any time into a more lethal strain.
Dr. Anthony Fauci stressed in his Feb.17 interview that COVID-19 is still prevalent in the United States and that the virus is unlikely to disappear and people should not let their guard down regarding this virus.
Accompanying the decision to lower the mandates is a discussion that the Omicron variant has not been as lethal of virus as the Delta variant. However, the World Health Organization stressed that Omicron kills and disables some people too. Just because the Omicron variant is less virulent to the general vaccinated population does not mean the next COVID-19 mutations will be.
Masking decreases virus transmission and helps potentially slow the pace of mutations and protect those most vulnerable from COVID-19 exposure.
Weiss said dropping mask-wearing is a counterproductive measure that will likely increases virus transmission. Increased infection rates make mutations more likely and increase the potential for more severe illness and death from this disease longer term. A more prudent public health approach is to normalize wearing masks in public spaces.
Due to the shortage of COVID-19 fighting antibody treatments and antiviral medications, people from high-risk groups still report difficulty accessing appropriate COVID-19 care in a timely manner. Some hospitals ration COVID-19 medications due to undersupply. Not everyone who qualifies for medications like Paxlovid finds it is accessible.
If people would be willing to wear masks longer, that could slow virus transmission and give scientists and drug companies more time to produce life-saving COVID-19 therapies. Shortages of COVID-19 fighting medications limit people’s access to these drugs.
With COVID-19 medication supplies low and the virus still present in the community, now is not the time to drop mask mandates. Dropping these mandates may lead to more spikes in virus transmission and more high-risk people becoming seriously ill.
People’s risk levels for severe illness from COVID-19 varies based on immune system health, age and other risk factors. People at higher risk, such as the immune-compromised and those with preexisting high-risk conditions, need to stay vigilant against COVID-19 exposure.
For those at higher risk of severe COVID-19 disease outcomes, such as the immune compromised, the end of universal masking incites more anxiety knowing that an extra layer of protection from their neighbors is not there.
In many ways for the immune-compromised the pandemic is now more difficult to navigate safely than ever because the wider community no longer takes the threat of dying from the virus seriously.
Wearing a mask is an easy measure to take to protect yourself, your roommates, your professors and the broader community from COVID-19.
The University should require masks in public indoor spaces such as classes and the library as part of caring for one’s neighbor. The person sitting next to a student in class could be more vulnerable to COVID-19 or have a vulnerable person they live with. Everyone wearing masks inside indoor public spaces protects the community better.
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