Health Care

Valley News: Public health experts in no hurry to get rid of their own masks

Logan Crane and Katarina Revollo, both of Windsor, shop for sandals at Farm-Way in Bradford on May 17, 2021. Photo by Geoff Hansen/Valley News

This article by Nora Doyle-Burr was first published May 15 in the Valley News.

RANDOLPH — In spite of being fully vaccinated against Covid-19, Dr. Joshua White said he continues to wear a mask when he’s in public, such as while grocery shopping.

In such venues, White, the chief medical officer of Gifford Medical Center, said he doesn’t know who else has been fully vaccinated and who hasn’t.

“I want to make unvaccinated people continue to feel comfortable,” White said in a phone interview.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidelines last week, indicating that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in public indoors, except in certain settings such as in hospitals or when required by law or regulation. The CDC previously relaxed mask requirements for outdoor settings.

But some doctors and public health experts said the guidelines could have included more examples of how best to implement the new mask guidelines in different settings. In addition to health care settings, masks are still required even of fully vaccinated people on public transportation and in correctional facilities and homeless shelters, but the new guidelines don’t address other settings.

Alice Ely, the director of the Public Health Council of the Upper Valley, urged patience as more people are vaccinated and as businesses work to update their policies in light of changing guidelines.

“If folks are asking us to mask up, (it’s because) they just want to create one policy for everyone,” Ely said. “We all need to continue to respect those decisions.”

She also said she hopes unvaccinated people see the relaxed mask guidance for the fully vaccinated as a reason to get the shot.

Vaccination rates are on the rise in the Twin States and beyond, and everyone 12 and older is now eligible for shots.

In Vermont, more than 388,000 people, nearly 71% of state residents over 16, have received at least one dose, and 53% are fully vaccinated, according to the state’s vaccine dashboard.

In New Hampshire, more than 758,000 people, 56% of the total population, have received a first dose, and more than 42% are fully vaccinated, according to the Granite State’s dashboard.

But children under 12 still cannot yet be vaccinated, and some adults who are immunocompromised may not be able to develop immunity to the disease even after getting inoculated. In addition, immunity is not immediate, and it takes two weeks to be fully vaccinated after one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or after the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

Timothy Lahey, an infectious disease specialist and director of clinical ethics at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, said he doesn’t disagree with the rollback of mask requirements for fully vaccinated people because they are unlikely to get sick or transmit the virus to others.

“At an individual level, if you’re vaccinated, most things are safe for you,” he said.

However, he thinks the CDC could have included more examples of how the new guidance might be applied in different settings.

“I’m glad I work in a place where we don’t have to think about it,” said Lahey, who like all UVM hospital staff and visitors still has to wear a mask.

Anne Sosin, a policy fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College, said she thinks the CDC ought to have waited a few weeks before rolling back the mask requirements.

While she agrees that the risk to vaccinated individuals may be low, she dislikes the message some people may get from the new guidance: “You’re on your own.”

Sosin said that the new guidance relies on people voluntarily disclosing their vaccination status and that lifting mandates before everyone has had a chance to be fully vaccinated is a mistake that “disproportionately burdens people who have not yet had the opportunity to become vaccinated.”

Sosin, who contracted Covid-19 this spring and marked her first day of full vaccination Monday, said she is especially concerned about younger workers, who are being asked to work in settings such as restaurants where precautions such as masking have been lifted, as well as those who are immunocompromised and for whom the vaccines may not work as well.

“We haven’t thought about who is going to be left behind,” she said.

White said it makes sense to roll back restrictions when it’s possible to do so safely.

“People’s individual freedoms are important,” he said.

For some, masks have “become kind of a safety blanket,” he said, noting that they helped prevent a flu season this winter.

But, he said, Vermont is doing well in vaccination rates, and he expects that all school-age children will be able to be vaccinated by the fall.

In terms of immunocompromised people, such as those on chemotherapy or who have undergone an organ transplant, White said it’s always been up to them and their families to take precautions to prevent them from being exposed to diseases in public settings.

“There are definitely people who are going to be vulnerable,” White said. The “onus is going to be on them and the people surrounding them to protect them. (That’s) unfortunately not really different than it has been in the past.”

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