by Elpidio R. Estioko
Knowingly or unknowingly, the latest pronouncement of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to lift the mask requirement is eliciting mixed emotions and confusion among Americans!
One of my friends told me the announcement confused him on what to do: “Do I have to follow the CDC, my local government, my company, the establishments I go to, or my way?”
He also mentioned instances of petty quarrels in stores on the issue of not wearing a mask. This came even when the debate of wearing masks has been ongoing, especially to those who consider the coronavirus as a conspiracy theory.
It seems that the most recent federal guidance on wearing masks offered a glimmer of hope that the pandemic’s end was inching closer, but it has also caused confusion, anger and worry.
On May 13, CDC recommended that “fully vaccinated individuals no longer had to wear masks indoors, except in hospitals, on public transit and in other specified places.” This guidance encourages people to get vaccinated but it also left people wondering what it means for individuals and society as a whole.
This brings confusion to many also who interpreted it differently.
“Some unfortunately interpreted this guidance as an immediate end to the indoor mask mandates or that the COVID-19 epidemic is essentially over,” Jeffrey Duchin, a public health expert with Public Health – Seattle & King County, told reporters at an Infectious Diseases Society of America news briefing on May 20.
Somehow, Duchin was right because the United States is still recording more than 24,000 cases and about 500 deaths each day from COVID-19. That’s the lowest level in the last 10 months, Gregory Poland, an infectious diseases expert who heads the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group in Rochester, Minn., said May 18 in a podcast.
But only 38% of the total population was fully vaccinated as of May 20. This is what makes the confusion even more confusing.
For local governments to shape their policy on this issue, they have to consider things like “how widely the virus is spreading locally and local vaccination rates, the prevalence of more contagious variants, and the efficacy of the vaccine they got.”
As far as Hawaii is concerned, it may not be that confusing because Hawaii Governor David Ige was firm in saying that Hawaii will maintain mask rules despite new CDC guidance.
Eleni Avendano wrote in Hawaii Civil Beat that Ige believes “it’s too soon to lift mask mandates because it’s impossible to determine who’s vaccinated and who’s not vaccinated. The state will continue to require everybody to wear masks when within 6 feet of people who aren’t in their household.”
Ige credited Hawaii’s mask policy for helping keep the state’s infection rates low and he doesn’t feel comfortable easing the rule with only 40% of Hawaii’s total population fully vaccinated, but he said lifting it is not yet timely.
He also recognized that keeping Hawaii’s mask rules in place could cause some confusion, especially among visitors who have been flocking back to the island state, but the message will be made clear at airports in the state.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said “people whose immune systems are compromised should consult with their doctors before forgoing masks. And the requirement to wear masks during travel and on public transportation still stands.”
Along this line, Ige said: “We have also reached out to our travel partners, the airlines and hotels to ask them to redouble efforts to ask travelers to be respectful of our rules and regulations and to remind them that there continues to be a mask mandate in the state of Hawaii and they will be required to wear masks indoors and outdoors unless they can maintain physical distancing.”
Travelers in Hawaii are still subject to a 10-day quarantine if they cannot show proof of a negative COVID-19 test result acquired within 72 hours of their last flight to the islands.
Hawaii began allowing people who were vaccinated in the state to bypass the testing protocols as the state is still working out how to verify and validate COVID-19 vaccinations for travelers who got inoculated out of state and inter-Pacific arrivals.
Recently, however, when my wife Delia, daughter May, and I visited Hawaii last month, they required us to go through a COVID-19 swab test two days before our actual flight. It turned out we were negative, so we flew to Honolulu, and everything went fine.
“We are in the process of reviewing those changes in the guidelines and will be announcing appropriate adjustments as we move forward. The state mask mandate continues to be in force. We will continue to enforce the mask mandate,” Ige said in a news conference a few weeks ago.
The governor’s sentiments are in opposition to Lt. Gov. Josh Green’s. Green told Hawaii News Now that he believes the state’s mask mandate should be lifted for fully vaccinated residents.
Lifting the mandate, he said, is “part of the process to return to normalcy and to trust the vaccines. It will have an impact as we go forward in having people do the right thing. I think the state should adopt that because we believe in science.”
Green also added: “I think we should adopt it. I think it’s a statement of trust that the vaccination program is working and that it should also help to encourage people to be vaccinated.”
Oahu opinions on the new guidance were mixed too. “Personally, I’ve been vaccinated, so I like the fact that I don’t have to wear a mask,” said Aina Haina resident Rick Tune.
Taylor Vitarelli of Makiki, on the other hand, said: “It’s too soon to ditch masks. I think we should still wear masks because even though a lot of people are vaccinated some people don’t have that opportunity.”
Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco tweeted that he would go maskless indoors under three conditions: If everyone in the room has been vaccinated; If any unvaccinated people present are wearing masks; and/or if the local COVID-19 rate is so low that it’s unlikely that an unmasked, unvaccinated person might carry the virus.
But is it really time to rejoice? California Governor Gavin Newsom doesn’t sound confident. “This disease has not been extinguished. It’s not taking the summer months off,” Newsom said.
Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, the vice dean for population health and health equity at the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, however, said: “We absolutely are!” in answer to the question if California is ready.
Dr. Bibbins-Domingo cited the state’s low case rates have been stable, and the state’s vaccination rates are high overall. That, however, doesn’t mean Dr. Bibbins-Domingo is without worry.
We cannot ignore the fact that the pandemic is still around! There are still pockets where fewer people are vaccinated, which means that the virus – and particularly any virulent variants – could spread more easily through a given community.
Despite the lifting by CDC, there is no federal mandate (from the top) to stop wearing masks, other than the announcement to lift it. It still boils down to local governments, business establishments, schools, political and non-political institutions and such to wear masks or not.
This is what makes it confusing!
ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO was a veteran journalist in the Philippines and a multi-awarded journalist here in the US. For feedbacks, comments… please email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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