Earlier this month, I pulled a mask out of the hat, scarf, and glove bin by the door; tied it up; and drowned. I’d inhaled a mouthful of cat fur, several weeks worth of it, left behind by my gray tabby, Calvin, who has been napping on a nest of facial coverings since I largely dispensed with them in May.
I have been fully vaccinated for two months. I spent the end of spring shedding my masking indoors and exchanging, for the first time, visible smiles with neighbors in the lobby of our apartment building. I had dinner, for the first time in a year and a half, in a restaurant. I attended my first party at someone else’s (vaccinated) home since spring 2020. After all, I am now at very low risk of getting seriously ill if SARS-CoV-2 infects me, thanks to the Pfizer vaccine.
But the pandemic is once again entering a new phase that feels more dangerous and more changeable, even for people who are lucky enough to have received the vaccines that saved their lives. A more transmissible variant, one that can break down vaccine-trained antibodies, has flooded the world. It is wreaking havoc among the uninoculated, a group that still includes almost half of Americans and most of the world’s population. After a prolonged hiatus, the outlook for the pandemic is bleaker than it has been in months. For the foreseeable future, I will be wearing masks in closed public places again, and there are four big reasons for that.
1. I don’t want to get COVID-19.
Let me be clear: my chances of getting sick are low, very low, especially if I think about the disease in its worst forms. Vaccines are spectacularly effective by blocking COVID-19, particularly cases leading to hospitalization or death, even when facing Delta and other variants to dodge antibodies. I hope this is true for some time: These vaccines were primarily tested for their power to curb deadly diseases, and that is what they are accomplishing against all the versions of the coronavirus they face.
But no vaccine is perfect. Some immunized people will end up infected with the virus; a small subset of this group will become ill, occasionally seriously. The proportion of vaccinated people who contract the coronavirus could increase in the presence of certain mutations that make the virus less recognizable to vaccinated immune systems and therefore more difficult to purge. The longer the virus stays in the body, the more opportunities it is given to copy itself and move through our tissues, the more likely symptoms are to emerge when immune defenders band together to fight. (Delta could be very well equipped accumulate in the respiratory tract). Most post-vaccination infections, or breakthroughs, appear to be asymptomatic or mild, a sign that vaccines are doing their job. But tempered the disease is not yet desirable disease, especially given the threat of a prolonged COVID, which can supposedly happen in vaccinated people, although researchers are not yet sure of its scope.
More expensive reduce the risks of everyone this results. Breakthroughs are most common when the immune system is faced with a ton of incoming virus, when there is an ongoing outbreak, or when the people around me are not immune. A mask reduces my exposure every time I put one on. Some variants, including Delta, may be more transmissible, but are still thwarted by physical barriers like fabric.
I am not fooling myself into thinking that I will avoid this virus forever; SARS-CoV-2 is here to stay. But as hospitals in various states start to fill up again, I’m in no rush to encounter the coronavirus, especially since …
2. I don’t want people around me to get COVID-19.
If it infects me, it doesn’t just affect me. I am concerned about strangers I meet, many of them without masks, whose immune status I do not know. I am concerned about the youngest children in my social network, who still cannot be vaccinated, and the elderly and immunosuppressed, whose defenses may be weaker than mine. I am concerned about people in my community who have been structurally banned from vaccines or who are reluctant to get vaccinated. My risk of getting COVID-19 is low. His is not much.
COVID-19 vaccines come with the delightful advantage of blocking some asymptomatic infections, but researchers are still finding out how often vaccinated people can transmit the pathogen. The math gets even more complicated with more contagious variants like Delta. The incoming virus affects me directly, but it can also turn me into a pathogen pit stop, which could allow the outgoing virus to hit someone with less immune armor. “More expensive protect ourselves and the people around us“Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious disease physician at the Medical University of South Carolina, told me. In the United States, inoculation rates have seriously dropped. The proportion of vulnerable people is stagnant, but it is still too high.
During a pandemic, personal safety cannot be the only consideration, as my colleague Ed Yong has written. The disease we are dealing with is infectious; the repercussions of our behavior affect those around us. Many unvaccinated people belong to populations that have been marginalized by the country’s fractured healthcare system. Charging them with increased COVID-19 risk, even indirectly, threatens to widen disparities. Going without a mask indoors still feels like a gamble, especially since …
3. I trust vaccines, but understand their limits.
My return to masks says nothing about my continued confidence in vaccines and what they are capable of doing. But while vaccines are an excellent tool, they are also imperfect and will work differently depending on the context in which they are used.
Consider, for example, the effectiveness of sunscreen, another stellar but flawed preventative. Certain brands, including those with a higher SPF, will be better than others at blocking burns and cancer. Mileage may vary even with the same tube of sunscreen, depending on who is using it (how much melanin is on their skin?), how they behave (do they dip in and out of the shade, or spend all day basking in the sun?), and the conditions locals (is it a cloudy day in a wooded park or a sunny day on a snow-covered hill?). Vaccines are similar. Advances are more likely in people with weakened immune systems and those who frequently mix with the virus; they can occur more often with certain variants.
Asking for a vaccine to shoulder the full burden of protection felt good a month ago, when case rates were plummeting. Now they are coming back up. Vaccines don’t feel different, but the conditions in which they work do. Perhaps now is not the best time to trust only them. “That puts a lot of pressure on vaccines,” Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist at the University of Manitoba, told me. The virus has upped the ante and I feel the need to match it. When it’s sunnier, I’ll probably go get sunscreen Y a hat, mostly because …
4. Wearing an accessory on the head doesn’t seem like a great cost to me.
Do not misunderstand. I do not to enjoy wearing a mask, and everything else the same, I still prefer not to wear it. But for me, it’s not a big sacrifice to make a little more security – I’ll mainly use one indoors when I’m around strangers, a situation where the risk of spread is high. And I will continue to review pandemic conditions as I would a weather forecast (hospitalizations, variants, immunization rates, and the behaviors of the people around me) and adjust as needed. The idea is that this state of affairs will be short-lived, until the vaccines go up and the virus regresses again.
I live in New England, where things are relatively quiet. I could probably get away with resuming normal life, whatever that is. But the status quo feels weak. It will take work to maintain it. As Delta dominates the nation and case rates rise, we may already be losing control. Kuppalli said that while she is concerned about our current collection of variants, she is also trying to ensure that more problematic versions of the virus do not emerge. The stakes in your community are particularly high: South Carolina, where vaccination rates are relatively low“It’s a free battle for all,” he said. “When I go into a supermarket, I am the only one with a mask. People look at you like you’re crazy. “
Vaccines have at times been billed as an option to replace the hassle of face masks. But doing that trade-off on an individual level feels overly simplistic in a population where so many people are neither immune nor covert. I also did not get vaccinated because I wanted to stop masking. I got vaccinated because I wanted to reduce my chances of getting this virus and passing it on to other people. Masking is a complementary means for the same purpose. My return is not a vaccination charge. It is an insurance policy. It is a small price to pay for more protection, especially once I have washed the cat hair.
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