On Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made a surprise announcement: Anyone who is fully vaccinated can now stop masking and social distancing, including often indoors.
Though many public health experts had said they thought we would need masks when indoors with strangers for at least another year, the nation’s health protection agency has declared that anyone who received the last dose of their COVID-19 vaccine at least two weeks ago can start living life the way they did before this god-awful thing began. Soon after, Pennsylvania followed suit.
To many people, this is a happy surprise: Freedom! Faces! Parties!
I have spent the last 20-plus years as a science journalist. I believe in the vaccines, and that the CDC’s new advice is likely supported by the latest data. I believe in Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, who says he feels good about the CDC’s new decision and wants people to feel like we are approaching “normality.” But Thursday’s announcement from the CDC has filled me with fear.
For one, I’m not fully vaccinated yet — my second shot was last Tuesday, so I have another week and a half to go. Even when I reach that date — May 25, marked on my calendar for weeks — my 7-year-old is still vulnerable, and likely won’t be eligible for a vaccine for months. It’s not fully clear what this new advice means to the millions of people like me, who are supposedly “safe” but live and go out into the world with someone who isn’t.
My biggest concern, however, is that in order for the CDC’s new advice to work, we have to trust strangers to be honest about their vaccine status and mask up if they aren’t fully vaccinated. I’m sorry to say, I don’t trust people. Call me a misanthrope if you’d like, but a survey by the Pew Research Center at the start of COVID-19 found that nearly half of American adults said they believe most people can’t be trusted. Nothing that’s happened in the past year has made me feel any differently.
The CDC says that 36% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated; the number is about the same in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. When a person comes close to me indoors without a mask, how do I know they are among the roughly one-third of the population that can do that safely?
And let’s be honest: Now that a green light to live mask-free exists, a lot more than 36% of people are going to ditch their masks. You can now walk up and be vaccinated without an appointment, so I can’t imagine that every person who chooses not to be is going to broadcast that decision by fully masking up wherever they go.
I’m not afraid for myself. Once I’m fully vaccinated, I understand that my risk of catching or spreading COVID-19 is vanishingly low (notwithstanding high-profile examples, such as Bill Maher). But I care about the 64% of Americans who aren’t fully vaccinated, and the others who are vaccinated but remain vulnerable. I don’t want my kid to feel self-conscious or singled out because she still has to wear a mask. And because of local transmission rates, unvaccinated people in Philadelphia and Montgomery County, where I live, remain at very high risk. I also care about the newer, more dangerous variants of COVID-19. As long as the virus can spread, additional variants will appear, and may one day overpower our current vaccines.
I also care about getting this horrible thing under control. We could still mess it up: Even though most adult residents of the Seychelles have been vaccinated (most of whom received China’s Sinopharm vaccine, which has an efficacy rate of 79%), the tiny nation is experiencing a case surge that has prompted another lockdown.
I’m not only afraid — I’m angry. Because I was really looking forward to not being afraid anymore. That, to me, is what “normality” and freedom feel like. That’s why I circled May 25 on my calendar — it was the day I could stop feeling afraid that I would catch or spread COVID. And now I feel like that date is meaningless. Because even when it comes, I’ll still be afraid — not for myself, but for the future of this pandemic.
So I’m still going to wear a mask, even after May 25. Please don’t yell at me about it, or accuse me of fearmongering or some weird conspiracy plot. I’m just scared.
Alison McCook is a writer living in Wyncote. @alisonmccook