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Masking your COVID-19 fears: Moderation and vaccination are the best solutions

Masking your COVID-19 fears: Moderation and vaccination are the best solutions
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Dogma divides us and distrust corrodes us until we are defined by our fear. Some politicians capitalize on this fear, finding public health experts who will echo the warnings that the worst is possibly yet to come and that we aren’t out of the woods yet. To control us, they paint worst-case scenarios, which, in turn, weaken us until we over-personalize all risks and think — erroneously — that every breath of maskless air must be loaded with the virus, that any slight headache after receiving the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 shot must be because of that one-in-a-million blood clot. 

I deal with these concerns in my medical practice, putting risk in perspective, soothing concerns, countering doomsday proclamations coming from our government via the media.

After all, courage and optimism are at the heart of American history; we own the resolve that won us two world wars and is on the verge of defeating this virus now. I call it the “95 percent group,” of which I am a confirmed member — 95 percent chance that I am immune after taking the vaccine, that I am no longer potentially putting others at risk by transmitting viral particles. This is the group that feels so protected by the proven immunity of this vaccine that we are not afraid to venture out. 

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The science tells us so. This is why we defy the 5 percenters, including some public health officials who feel compelled to point out that there is still too much virus around to be absolutely sure about discarding our year-long constrictions and refusing to join the road to our renewed freedom. Their ultra-cautious reality not only ignores the tremendous financial, emotional and physical costs of restrictions — even among the fully vaccinated — but is also at odds with the clinical trials and the real-world data that, for example, led Israel to reopen with very few new COVID-19 cases, despite the world death rate reaching 3 million.

This is why I felt so comfortable and practically impervious hopping on a plane to travel to the new epicenter, Detroit, to visit my mother-in-law in the ICU this week. My wife and her mother shared tears for the first time in over a year, and my wife let her emotional guard down. While we wore personal protective equipment (PPE), we didn’t feel at risk. This deeply moving moment couldn’t be missed, and our vaccines brought us there. 

We went to a riverfront restaurant where we shared glasses of wine and a delicious meal that was served by a waiter who had been vaccinated too. We wore masks when we weren’t eating. Still, the restaurant was empty. Surely the multiple population studies from around the world over the course of the pandemic have shown us the value of well-fitted mask-wearing indoors when there is this easily transmissible, aerosolized virus around. 

But are the mask-deniers any worse than the mask-worshippers who wear them down around their chins while they crowd together? And is my risk in that restaurant of getting COVID-19 so low because of my mask, or was it in fact my vaccine? There is no science supporting wearing a mask outside or wearing it at all after having been vaccinated. 

Nevertheless, an almost palpable fear pervaded the near-empty streets in Detroit, even among those who have been vaccinated. Almost all of the restaurants were closed, and the few that were open were unoccupied. I was certain the fear was connected more to the gloomy warnings from CDC Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyFauci warns of 'localized surges' in areas with low vaccination rates The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden support, gas tax questions remain on infrastructure Overnight Health Care: Biden touts 300 million vaccine doses in 150 days | Biden warns of 'potentially deadlier' delta variant | Public option fades with little outcry from progressives MORE as well as from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) rather than to the rising case numbers. Restaurants weren’t yet forced to close but did so anyway. We wore our vaccine stickers like force fields and wondered where the others were who had been vaccinated. Sadly, many still suffered from group-think and awaited the government sirens of liberation. A 95 percent chance of not catching even the mildest form of the virus was not yet officially acknowledged or enough for those who still lived within their fear confinement.                                                                    

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So what should we learn from this pandemic? Certainly we have all gained a heightened awareness of how easily invisible viruses can spread, which can only help us going forward. Perhaps we have always been too quick to come too close to each other without considering consequences. Masks and hand sanitizers are tools that can help us. We have also been too slow to vaccinate. We are witnessing the COVID-19 vaccines conquering the widely spreading UK B.1.1.7 variant in real-time. A side benefit of our new, more-careful ways has been to staunch the spread of flu, a much less contagious virus.

We still need to learn how to juggle a serious sense of risk without overreacting to it, how to adjust our thinking with evolving information without panicking. With a highly contagious respiratory virus that hangs in the air and rides on tiny droplets, the old flu models from 1918, which include lockdowns, are largely obsolete and ineffective. We have been far too slow to realize this even as we have been far too quick to throw caution to the wind and gather in large groups. 

The best course is somewhere in between, as it always is. It is the god of universal vaccination that will save us as it has so often in the past, from smallpox to polio and measles. Above all, we need to remember that the god of biotechnology is directly connected to the real god. 

Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent and author of the new book, "COVID; the Politics of Fear and the Power of Science."