How I’ll decide when it’s time to ditch my mask

Recent mask guidelines are designed for communities not individuals

photo of commuters, some masked, some unmasked at Waterloo station in London

With mask mandates lifted in most places, people, like these London commuters, have to decide for themselves when and if it’s safe to bare their faces indoors in public. The decision can be difficult.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images News

For weeks, I have been watching coronavirus cases drop across the United States. At the same time, cases were heading skyward in many places in Europe, Asia and Oceania. Those surges may have peaked in some places and seem to be on a downward trajectory again, according to Our World in Data.

Much of the rise in cases has been attributed to the omicron variant’s more transmissible sibling BA.2 clawing its way to prominence. But many public health officials have pointed out that the surges coincide with relaxing of COVID-19 mitigation measures. 

People around the world are shedding their masks and gathering in public. Immunity from vaccines and prior infections have helped limit deaths in wealthier countries, but the omicron siblings are very good at evading immune defenses, leading to breakthrough infections and reinfections. Even so, at the end of February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted new guidelines for masking, more than doubling the number of cases needed per 100,000 people before officials recommended a return to the face coverings (SN: 3/3/22).

Not everyone has ditched their masks. I have observed some regional trends. The majority of people I see at my grocery store and other places in my community in Maryland are still wearing masks. But on road trips to the Midwest and back, even during the height of the omicron surge, most of the faces I saw in public were bare. Meanwhile, I was wearing my N95 mask even when I was the only person doing so. I reasoned that I was protecting myself from infection as best I could. I was also protecting my loved ones and other people around me from me should I have unwittingly contracted the virus.

But I will tell you a secret. I don’t really like wearing masks. They can be hot and uncomfortable. They leave lines on my face. And sometimes masks make it hard to breathe. At the same time, I know that wearing a good quality, well-fitting mask greatly reduces the chance of testing positive for the coronavirus (SN: 2/12/21). In one study, N95 or KN95 masks reduced the chance of testing positive by 83 percent, researchers reported in the February 11 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.  And school districts with mask mandates had about a quarter of the number of in-school infections as districts where masks weren’t required (SN: 3/15/22).

With those data in mind, I am not ready to go barefaced. And I’m not alone. Nearly 36 percent of the 1,916 respondents to a Science News Twitter poll said that they still wear masks everywhere in public. Another 28 percent said they mask in indoor crowds, and 23 percent said they mask only where it’s mandatory. Only about 12 percent have ditched masks entirely.

Some poll respondents left comments clarifying their answers, but most people’s reasons for masking aren’t clear. Maybe they live in the parts of the country or world where transmission levels are high and hospitals are at risk of being overrun. Maybe they are parents of children too young for vaccination. Perhaps they or other loved ones are unvaccinated or have weakened immune systems that put them at risk for severe disease. Maybe, like me, they just don’t want to get sick — with anything.

Before the pandemic, I caught several colds a year and had to deal with seasonal allergies. Since I started wearing a mask, I haven’t had a single respiratory illness, though allergies still irritate my eyes and make my nose run. I’ve also got some health conditions that raise my risk of severe illness. I’m fully vaccinated and boosted, so I probably won’t die if I catch the virus that causes COVID-19, but I don’t want to test it (SN: 11/8/21). Right now, I just feel safer wearing a mask when I’m indoors in public places.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what would convince me that it was safe to go maskless. What is the number or metric that will mark the boundary of my comfort zone?

The CDC now recommends using its COVID-19 Community Levels map for determining when mask use is needed. That metric is mostly concerned with keeping hospitals and other health care systems from becoming overwhelmed. By that measure, most of the country has the green light to go maskless. I’m probably more cautious than the average person, but the levels of transmission in that metric that would trigger mask wearing — 200 or more cases per 100,000 population — seem high to me, particularly since CDC’s prior recommendations urged masking at a quarter of that level.

The metric is designed for communities, not individuals. So what numbers should I, as an individual, go by? There’s always the CDC’s COVID-19 Integrated County View that tracks case rates and test positivity rates — the percentage of tests that have a positive result. Cases in my county have been ticking up in the last few days, with 391 people having gotten COVID-19 in the last week — that’s about 37 out of every 100,000 people. That seems like relatively low odds of coming into contact with a contagious person. But those are only the cases we know about officially. There may be many more cases that were never reported as people take rapid antigen tests at home or decide not to test. There’s no way to know exactly how much COVID-19 is out there.

And the proportion of cases caused by BA.2 is on the rise, with the more infectious omicron variant accounting for about 35 percent of cases nationwide in the week ending March 19. In the mid-Atlantic states where I live, about 30 percent of cases are now caused by BA.2. But in some parts of the Northeast, that variant now causes more than half of cases. The increase is unsettling but doesn’t necessarily mean the United States will experience another wave of infections as Europe has. Or maybe we will. That uncertainty makes me uncomfortable removing my mask indoors in public right now.

Maybe in a few weeks, if there’s no new surge in infections, I’ll feel comfortable walking around in public with my nose and mouth exposed. Or maybe I’ll wait until the number of cases in my county is in single digits. I’m pretty sure there will come a day when I won’t feel the need to filter every breath, but for me, it’s not that time yet. And I truthfully can’t tell you what my magic number will be.

Here’s what I do know: Even if I do decide to have an unmasked summer, I will be strapping my mask back on if COVID-19 cases begin to rise again.

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