Holy turnabout, Batman. Since early 2021, the U.S. has gone from having indoor face mask wearing requirements to dropping many such requirements to what can be seen in the latest update of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) K-12 Schools and Early Care and Education (ECE) Programs guidelines. The CDC is now recommending that “Schools and ECE programs should consider flexible, non-punitive policies and practices to support individuals who choose to wear masks regardless of the Covid-19 Community Level.” Now it’s not clear whether the “consider flexible non-punitive policies and practices” was referring to not punishing those who “choose to wear masks” or not punishing those who hassle people who “choose to wear masks.”
Lucky Tran, PhD, Director of Science Communication and Media Relations at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, seemed to take it the former way when tweeting the following:
As you can see, Tran indicated that “the CDC has backslid so much they are recommending that schools should *consider not punishing people* who wear masks to protect their communities.” If that’s what the CDC meant then what’s next? Should they tell people to consider not punishing those who choose to pee in the toilet rather than in the swimming pool?
Even if the CDC meant that you should consider not punishing people who are giving those wearing face masks a hard time, the line is pretty dark, as Aaron Miller, PhD, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences at Marquette University, tweeted:
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Did the CDC instead mean that people who are harassing or bullying those wearing face masks shouldn’t be punished? Either way, it’s not the best worded sentence, and it doesn’t bode well for those worried about being bullied for wearing face masks. As you can see above, in a response to Miller’s tweet, @Meidas_Laura lamented, “I have lost all trust in the @CDCDirector. This administration is doing so much, but their health secretaries are failing them. My boys were made fun of every day last year for continuing to wear a mask. Way to encourage bullying.”
Although the CDC doesn’t seem to be tracking the number of people being mocked, harassed, and bullied for wearing face masks, such behaviors seem to be growing increasingly common. For example, as I covered for Forbes, last month Joe Rogan related on his Spotify podcast that he had given bleep to stand-up comedian and actress Ali Wong for still wearing a face mask. And the following tweet includes a video of comedian Alex Stein calling Tess Owen, Senior Reporter at VICE News, a “loser” while pointing out that she is the only one wearing a face mask at a Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC):
Yeah, wearing a face mask is not like bedazzling your face or wearing a red baseball cap. It’s not some kind of fashion choice or political statement. A growing number of scientific studies have backed the use of face masks. For example, just look at the evidence review published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) on January 11, 2021, summarizing many of these studies and a study entitled “Mask wearing in community settings reduces SARS-CoV-2 transmission,” published in PNAS on May 31, 2022. Gee which situation would be safer? One in which everyone who is infected is freely spewing the virus into the air for everyone else to inhale or one in which there is at least something blocking virus-carrying respiratory droplets?
It’s important to remember that someone may be wearing a face mask not only for personal protection but to protect others. For example, here’s what Jonathan I. Levy, ScD, and Professor and Chair of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health, tweeted:
The newest CDC guidance does say that “Wearing a well-fitting mask or respirator consistently and correctly reduces the risk of spreading the virus that causes Covid-19.” And it does recommend universal indoor masking “at a high Covid-19 Community Level” and “in healthcare settings, including school nurses’ offices, regardless of the current Covid-19 Community Level.” Additionally, the CDC did mention that “Schools might need to require masking in settings such as classrooms or during activities to protect students with immunocompromising conditions or other conditions that increase their risk for getting very sick with Covid-19 in accordance with applicable federal, state, or local laws and policies.”
Why then even mention the possibility that people may be punished for wearing face masks or that face mask use may not be supported? And why use the word “consider?” On Twitter, @organichemusic worried that such wording frames face mask wearing in a negative light:
Again one has to wonder why now when it comes to changing CDC guidance. With the more transmissible BA.5 Omicron subvariant of the SARS-CoV-2 spreading, Covid-19 activity has remained high throughout much of the U.S. The U.S. has still been averaging 105,543 Covid-19 cases, 42,555 Covid-19-related hospitalizations, and 491 Covid-19-related deaths a day as of August 14, according to the New York Times. Moreover, schools will be opening soon, which will further increase social mixing and potentially the spread of the virus. The weather also will be getting cooler, which could further promote the spread of the virus. And, gee, what else will happening in the coming months? Oh, that’s right, something called the mid-term elections will be taking place. Could political leaders be thinking more about what would help them and their political party members get elected re-elected than what would best protect the public in the longer run? If you haven’t been following what’s been happening, the simple act of wearing a face mask has become highly politicized. Since the virus itself is very, very small, and can’t be seen walking down the street, face masks have become the most prominent sign that our society has not completely returned to pre-pandemic times. And perhaps political leaders see the illusion of “back to normal” as a path to getting elected.
Remember face masks protect not only those who are wearing the masks but also everyone around the face mask wearers. The original intent of face mask requirements was to help people protect each other by not only blocking the virus from getting into your nose and mouth but also preventing the virus (if you are carrying it) from getting too far beyond your nose and mouth. Yet, in about a year and a half, face mask wearing has gone from the population-based intervention that it is to being portrayed more as an individual choice, which would be kind of like calling someone smoking indoors in your face an individual choice. Turnabout may be fair play in some situations but not when it comes to a Covid-19 precautions that’s been supported by scientific evidence.