By David M. Greenwald
Woodland, CA – Yolo County announced on Wednesday that they were following the state guidance on masking by ending its universal face covering requirement in public settings and workplaces on February 15.
“The change comes after the recent surge of cases from the more contagious Omicron variant greatly surpassed the prior peak of a year ago, yet Yolo County hospitals experienced fewer hospitalizations,” a release said.
“Yolo County is lifting our masking order because the COVID-19 situation has changed thanks to effective vaccines, effective treatments, and a variant that causes less severe disease,” said Yolo County Health Officer Dr. Aimee Sisson. “The Omicron wave is receding, but COVID-19 will continue to be with us. We must learn to live with COVID-19. Moving away from requiring everybody to wear masks indoors is a first step toward living with COVID-19. I still recommend that everybody wears a mask indoors in Yolo County, but it will no longer be required in most settings for fully vaccinated persons starting February 16.”
To which I dutifully respond: there you go again. This is the broken record of the pandemic – we put restrictions in place, tighten things up, and the numbers go down. But before the pandemic actually ends, we reopen things, people stop wearing masks, get complacent and, bam, a new wave hits. We have never actually held the guidelines in place long enough to end the pandemic—if such a thing is actually possible.
The good news—the Omicron wave was very steep but brief. In early January the daily average surged over 800,000 per day. That number as of yesterday dropped to 227,000. While that is less than a third of what it was, is still nearly at the high water mark of the entire pandemic up until this past month.
This stuff is still deadly. Nearly 2600 people died yesterday. Omicron is considered less deadly by experts, but the number of deaths rose to just under the January 2021 peak despite the fact that nearly 3 in 4 adults over 18 are fully vaccinated.
But politicians are responding to public sentiment, and public sentiment as captured in polling released on Monday in the NY Times shows “the public’s resolve to combat the coronavirus pandemic is waning.”
Nate Cohn on the NY Times writes, “The surveys depict an increasingly frustrated and pessimistic nation that is as worried by the specter of an endless pandemic as it is fearful of the disease. While a majority of voters remain concerned about the coronavirus, the balance of recent polling suggests that the desire to return to normalcy has approached or even overtaken alarm about the virus itself.”
For example, the Yahoo/ YouGov survey found a split—46 percent of respondents thought Americans should “learn to live with” it and “get back to normal,” while just 43 percent thought “we need to do more to vaccinate, wear masks and test.”
But how do you get back to normal when hundreds of thousands of people are dying from this? My kids are stuck in limbo, waiting to get negative tests, and the soonest they can go back to school is Tuesday.
Is vaccinating—which people do all the time for all sorts of illnesses that are no longer deadly childhood threats—and wearing masks really that onerous?
Cohn points out that 70 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, “It’s time we accept Covid is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives”—but what does that mean exactly? I agree, for example, that COVID is here to stay, and getting on with our lives is what we are doing—what that looks like is open to debate.
The public is increasingly against vaccine mandates, falling from 53 to 43 percent support since September even though we have all sorts of vaccine mandates for other diseases.
Support for masking and social distancing guidelines has also dropped although it remains at 52 percent.
Cohn points out, “The polls create a delicate challenge for the Biden administration, which never regained its political standing since the rise of the Delta variant dashed last summer’s hopes of a return to normalcy. The growing unease with the pandemic seems to have added to the president’s political woes, and may help explain why the public disapproves of Mr. Biden’s handling of the coronavirus for the first time.”
So instead we go too quickly into a mode that will likely lead to another wave down the line as a new variant emerges, because we have failed to deal effectively with previous waves.
The new masking guidance from the state will require masking at specified settings: public transit, K-12 schools, childcare, healthcare, correctional, shelter, and long-term care settings. That makes sense.
But, “Only unvaccinated persons are required to mask in all indoor public settings. Fully vaccinated individuals are recommended to continue indoor masking when the risk may be high.”
So that means that the people required to mask are those less likely to mask. We have already learned that doesn’t really work.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a challenge for everyone over the last two years, and Yolo County residents have demonstrated their willingness to follow public health requirements,” said Board Chair, Supervisor Angel Barajas. “We will continue to support ways for residents to protect themselves and others from the disease.”
The county stated, “The end of a masking requirement does not signal that masks do not work. Masks work. We recommend that anyone who feels unsafe in any situation wear a mask that fits and filters well, such as an N95, KN95, or KF94 respirator or double mask with a cloth mask over a surgical mask. We also strongly recommended that everyone take the opportunity to get vaccinated and boosted.”
The problem is that we have not learned from history and this notion that we can move on when 2600 people a day are dying is a bit naïve. But there we go again.