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Masks Are So Last Year

Despite vaccines and the lowest death rate since March 2020, we are making policy that fails to match reality.

Just as mask mandates and other pandemic-era restrictions seemed to be behind us, numerous cities across the country have reversed course. From Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, mayors and public health officials have revived indoor mask requirements for the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.

The abrupt change was due to the CDC changing—once again—its guidance on indoor masking, with CDC Director Rochelle Walensky arguing that the new Delta variant is much more transmissible than the original strain. The implication appears to be that the vaccinated are not as protected as previously thought and that the high transmissibility of the new strain will inevitably lead to more hospitalizations and deaths.

The problem with all of that, of course, is that it’s not really true.

Despite sensationalist proclamations from media outlets that X number of fully vaccinated individuals have tested positive for the virus, the actual contextual data are clear. While 125,000 fully vaccinated Americans have tested positive and 1,400 of them have died, those numbers respectively represent just 0.077 percent and 0.001 percent of those vaccinated.

It’s also worth noting that the seven-day rolling average for daily Covid deaths was 549 when the CDC lifted its mask-wearing guidance in May. The updated number for when the CDC reverted back to masking was just 296, which marks a 46 percent decrease. In fact, the number of daily Covid-19 deaths is the lowest it has been since March 2020. In Washington, D.C., to take one example, there have been just four(!) Covid deaths in the past month. For what it’s worth, there have been nearly three times as many homicides in the same time span.

And yet, we are now discussing closing schools and businesses, bringing back capacity restrictions, imposing vaccination requirements to enter gyms and restaurants, and more. All of this in addition to forcing people to #MaskUp again.

It seems fair to ask, what are we doing?

Much of the paranoia-based policy surrounding the pandemic has been rooted in an obsession with Covid cases. This made some sense in the first few months of the pandemic as cases correlated strongly with hospitalizations and deaths. When cases were on the rise, hospitalizations and deaths would reliably follow. But that was back when natural immunity and vaccination were not part of the equation. Our public health paradigm has shifted dramatically since then, as over 36 million Americans have tested positive for the virus (the true number is likely much higher) and 165 million are fully vaccinated.

Now it is true that daily Covid cases have risen over the past month as the Delta variant spreads predominantly in the unvaccinated population. But again, that has not corresponded with an increase in hospitalizations and deaths for several reasons. First, the vast majority of Covid hospitalizations and deaths have been elderly Americans, 80 percent of whom are now fully vaccinated. This means that most of the new cases are among younger Americans, who are at a much lower risk of suffering severe symptoms.

Furthermore, as more Americans of all ages are vaccinated, some “breakthrough” cases will occur, but be much less serious. Over time, and as we’re already seeing, cases will become more and more decoupled from hospitalizations and deaths—which are and have always been the real concern. If a bunch of people are becoming infected but not experiencing serious symptoms, then that really isn’t much of a problem. It’s especially not a problem of the magnitude that justifies restoring obsolete mask mandates and other heavy-handed impositions.

Early in the pandemic, when we were unsure of the severity of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, did not have widely available (and very effective) vaccines, and had no natural immunity, there was a compelling case for masks, social distancing, capacity restrictions, and so on. We are no longer in that situation, and it’s not only irrational to pretend like we are, but insulting to Americans who have sacrificed more than enough over the past 18 months. It’s time to say enough, and leave masks in the past.

Michael Huling is a graduate student at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and an editorial intern for The American Conservative.

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