I spent the last days of summer down the Shore. There, signs say masks are recommended indoors for the unvaccinated; based on local COVID-19 numbers, the CDC says even vaccinated people should use them. But for the most part, my daughter and I were the only ones wearing masks in stores. Entire families — including young children who could not yet be vaccinated — strolled unmasked through the aisles of the Avalon Wawa or the boardwalk shops at Ocean City, seemingly without a care in the world.
In other words, most people were simply ignoring the latest public health advice. And I can kind of understand why.
For a couple of weeks this summer, once I was fully vaccinated, I returned to my favorite bougie pastime, hot yoga, where masking is essentially impossible. After 18 months, it felt glorious to once again work out my aches and pains in a 95-degree room with strangers.
At the end of July, when the CDC cited data suggesting that even vaccinated people can catch and spread COVID, I still went to hot yoga a couple of more times. It was hard to get a taste of freedom then have to backtrack, perhaps for the foreseeable future. So I told myself it’s OK to take this one risk.
But eventually, I had to face the facts and stop going. My daughter is too young to be vaccinated, and a dear friend is being treated for cancer; others in my circle are immunocompromised. How awful would I feel if I got them, or someone else, sick because of my hot yoga class?
The summer of denial is over. Kids are back at school, the days are getting shorter, and there is a chill in the air at night. We will have fewer opportunities to gather outside without a mask in sight, watch unvaccinated kids chase each other and yelp with delight, and talk about something other than COVID. We will have fewer opportunities to pretend it isn’t a problem anymore.
Accepting this is easier said than done. Fighting denial is an uphill battle, particularly when it comes to our health. Think of the people you know who insist they are “fine” after experiencing a trauma, or that they can stop drinking or smoking or doing drugs whenever they want. Before being diagnosed with the neurological disease ALS, my mother sought help for her symptoms from every specialist she could find — except a neurologist. She told me she didn’t think she needed one.
But denial doesn’t work. It doesn’t stop you from developing PTSD, or lung cancer, or ALS. In fact, it makes everything worse: Denying the reality of COVID is what is needlessly filling hospitals, closing schools, and disrupting the supply chain for everything from cars to clothing. Anyone who continues to pretend COVID isn’t a problem anymore will create more problems for everyone else.
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The only way out of this mess is to face facts, which are: COVID is more than just a flu, the vaccines work (Pfizer now has full FDA approval), and the pandemic is far from over. So for now, masking needs to remain part of our lives, particularly among children at school. Period. (Can we stop arguing about this already?)
We also need to face how we’ve mishandled the pandemic so far. When the CDC announced in May that vaccinated people could take off their masks, I was nervous. I didn’t trust strangers to be honest about whether or not they were vaccinated. Even if science supported that advice at the time, common sense didn’t. Just look at where we are today, with cases surging and folks denying the need to dig out and dust off their masks.
This is not an “I told you so” moment. I want us to learn from our mistakes. We — public health experts especially — need to understand that people will deny data and advice that scare or inconvenience them, so it’s not enough to simply tell people what’s safe and what isn’t, and expect them to do the right thing. That likely means relying more on mandates, both for masks and vaccinations. And not lifting those mandates until we are very confident it’s safe to, given both science and human behavior.
People who deny the reality of COVID are depriving everyone of the “normal” freedoms we used to enjoy, by prolonging the pandemic and slowing our safe return to the lives we led before the pandemic. They’re also squandering the amazing progress we’ve made since last fall: We now have vaccines, and have learned how to safely keep kids at school, with tools such as testing, ventilation, and masks. But we have to use those tools.
Summer is over, and winter is coming. Enough is enough.
Alison McCook is a writer living in Wyncote. @alisonmccook