Jake McPhail ’24
President Biden’s State of the Union Address on the night of Tuesday, Mar. 1 was unique in a myriad of ways. From the rhetoric surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the heckling from the crowd, and, most visibly, the lack of masks. This new display of bare faces of power before the entire country offered a glimmer of hope and a strong indication that we are at a turning point in the pandemic. As we turn off our televisions and look at ourselves masked in the reflection it makes us wonder: why am I still wearing mine?
The CDC recently announced a new metric to measure where and when to mask by county: designating low, medium, and high community transmission levels. If you are in a county designated with a low level of transmission, masking is not recommended nor suggested. If you are in a county designated with a medium level of transmission, masking is suggested if “you are at high risk for severe illness.” In addition, it is suggested that individuals “talk to your healthcare provider about whether you need to wear a mask and take other precautions.” In communities with high levels of transmission, masking is recommended.
Connecticut, being a national leader in vaccinations as the first state to vaccinate over 50% of residents, has, unsurprisingly, all but one county with low levels of transmission—Middlesex County labeled with medium risk. That said, the entire state still lies within levels that allow everyone without “high risk for severe illness” to take their masks off.
Despite this change in guidance, as I am sure many of us have noticed, a majority of people are still masking, and many are still advocating for them to be compulsory. Although I understand certain settings like hospitals, public transit, and other high-risk scenarios requiring masks, the current guidance from the CDC suggests that they are not needed in most situations. Many of those on the left, the same people who have been clamoring to “follow the science” throughout the pandemic are now suggesting we do the opposite.
It is important, though, to address from where this perspective arose. From the beginning of the pandemic, an election year for former-president Donald Trump, he minimized most of the risks surrounding it. The goal of this downplaying was, ostensibly, to secure his re-election and keep the country happy; however, this had the obvious side-effect of hundreds of thousands of Americans dying from COVID-19 because their self-risk assessment was dramatically impacted by his words. When the President of the United States says not to worry, Americans generally tend to not worry and subsequently not mask, vaccinate, social distance or take whatever other means necessary for viral protection.
The response on the left was to immediately distance themselves from this extremely dangerous onslaught of misinformation that had the direct impact of making Americans sick and killing many of them. This makes sense: if there is a nascent misinformation campaign that is killing people, the sensible reaction would be to move as far away in the opposite direction as possible. However, this reaction has spiraled out of control to where the Instagram infographic-reposting girlies are just virtue signaling to their peers. They want to show that they care but are only willing to do so by brandishing a KN95 mask in Raether Library.
The fact of the matter is that we are in a different place now than we were during the beginning of the pandemic: there are extremely effective vaccines that prevent both infections and, more importantly, severe illness and hospitalization. The booster shot is 90% effective in preventing hospitalization. The Pfizer pill is almost just as effective, preventing up to 89% of hospitalizations. This is not to say that the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers were right—they were not and are not. We are at a point now in the pandemic where we have free access to both the vaccines and to KN95 masks that protect the wearer.
Moving our eyes to Trinity, we are a community of college-aged students that are at a very small risk of severe illness and are nearly 100% fully vaccinated. That said, what about the professors and students who are at risk even with vaccines? I suggest we look at the model that Bowdoin College, our fellow NESCAC, used during the middle of last semester where masks were “not required in student residence halls, administrative or academic buildings, athletic facilities, and Smith Union,” the equivalent to Mather Hall at Bowdoin. The goal of this policy was to allow students at low risk to not wear masks whilst isolating them from faculty and staff. Now, nearly six months later, we are over the Omicron wave and can move to relax restrictions even further. We are in a place where we can have masks optional everywhere, including dining halls and classrooms. However, we should respect the wishes of our professors and reserve the right for them to require masks when in their presence. It would be callous to force an at-risk or immunocompromised professor to be in a classroom with unmasked lacrosse boys coughing everywhere.
Regardless, I want to emphasize the abundance of free N95 masks that not only protect those around the wearer but the wearer themselves. For those still nervous about contracting COVID-19 or for those who are still at risk, there are options that do not include requiring everyone around them to mask.
We are at a turning point in the pandemic where we no longer have to wear a mask in most settings. I am still wearing mine because it makes me feel a little more comfortable, but I think everyone should be able to make that choice given where we are. It would be hypocritical to say “follow the science” throughout the pandemic but then change course as soon as we do not like it.