Put down the mask: Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the jab

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The line between caution and hysteria is a thin one. The recent rise in COVID cases has revealed that too many people in power during a plague means that they can mandate whatever they wish, and to oppose them is to be a crank.

After almost 18 months of lockdowns, restrictions, and mandates, we don’t need more knee-jerk responses. We need to focus on what keeps COVID hospitalizations and deaths low.

Getting more people vaccinated is paramount. Not another mask mandate for all. Not more social distancing. It’s about vaccinations. The spike in cases is happening among the unvaccinated population. Public health efforts need to center on reaching out to the vaccine-hesitant. We do not need to restrict what vaccinated people can do. It’s a violation of their freedom, and it’s foolish public policy when we know the vaccinated are not a problem.

For one, resorting to universal masking, regardless of vaccination status, only makes getting more people vaccinated harder. If you have concerns about getting the vaccine, and you have to wear a mask even after getting vaccinated, then why bother? At least Gov. Wolf has the sense to recognize such foolishness.

“We did a masking mandate back when we didn’t have a vaccine, back in the early days, but we’re not there now,” Wolf told KDKA radio. “People have the ability as individuals to make the decision to get a vaccine, and if they do that, that’s protection.”

The vaccine-hesitant are already worried about getting a jab – telling them nothing will change beyond an angry “you won’t die” isn’t exactly persuasive. The priority should be on increasing outreach efforts so health officials can hear the concerns of the hesitant, answer their questions, and explain the benefits of the vaccine. Indignant anger doesn’t help, but treating adults with dignity can go a long way.

Let’s also keep in mind that the recent COVID rise has not been a drastic spike. Even though COVID cases have surged in recent weeks, hospitalizations have only slightly increased, according to the CDC. Cases are 171 percent higher than two weeks ago in Pennsylvania, but hospitalizations are only up 26 percent and deaths are down 49 percent. That’s a reflection that younger people are still susceptible to COVID and should get vaccinated – the spike is driven by the unvaccinated, another point in favor of the effectiveness of vaccines.

Getting vaccinated is especially important for adults who have a medical condition. Since the plague reached America in March 2020, only 8 percent of adults hospitalized by COVID had no underlying medical conditions, according to the CDC. Of adults hospitalized with COVID, almost 60 percent had hypertension, 50 percent had obesity, 43 percent had a metabolic disease, and 36 percent had a cardiovascular disease (some conditions overlapped).

What these numbers make clear is that healthy, vaccinated adults do not need mask mandates to stay safe. Adults with health complications who are vaccinated may need to mask in crowds, depending on what their doctor recommends. Unvaccinated adults need to get jabbed as soon as possible to lower their chances of a serious case or spreading it to adults with a medical condition.

What is not needed is public health officials exaggerating the threat that rising cases pose. 

Breakthrough infections, where a vaccinated person catches COVID, are incredibly rare. More than 161 million Americans have been vaccinated: Only 4,072 have been hospitalized due to COVID, and 849 people have died. Furthermore, 74 percent of those hospitalizations were among people older than 65. 

Vaccines work. Masks aren’t necessary if you’re vaccinated.

It may be wise to recommend older Americans wear masks in some contexts, but general restrictions “due to an abundance of caution” are irrational and hysterical. They undermine public trust in vaccines and they show a level of fear wholly out of place in a free society.

Health officials and opportunistic politicians have implored the public to “follow the science” and “trust the science.” Most of us have. Vaccines are the key to a post-plague society not haunted by pain and death. 

Let’s not grant politicians more power due to irrational fear. Let’s not undermine trust in vaccines by demanding the public dons the mask again. Instead, let’s focus on persuading at-risk adults who are vaccine-hesitant that the jab is safe, and not freak out whenever case counts rise.

  • Anthony Hennen

    Anthony Hennen is executive editor of Philadelphia Weekly. He is managing editor of expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region. Previously, he was managing editor at the James G. Martin Center, a higher ed think tank in Raleigh, North Carolina. Anthony grew up on the Ohio/West Virginia border. @anthonyhennen.

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