Misinformation throws a wrench in self-imposed mask-wearing

Misinformation throws a wrench in self-imposed mask-wearing
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s  (CDC) recommendation that vaccinated Americans can now gather indoors unmasked has drawn flak because it relies on an honor system, which we can’t fully trust. But that’s not the fault of the CDC — it’s the fault of those with platforms who somehow led Americans to stop believing in science and medicine.

As a physician and American still recovering from the trauma of this ongoing pandemic, I can understand why so many are confused or concerned by the updated recommendations. We can’t easily tell who’s been vaccinated. In a pandemic-era Venn diagram, the intersection of the set showing people opposed to COVID-19 vaccines and the set of anti-maskers would be pretty large. Because we’re still a long way away from community immunity, those who’ve been diligently following safety guidelines for more than a year may view the CDC’s new mask direction as a capitulation to these two overlapping groups of naysayers.

But the CDC does seem to be basing this change, however abrupt it feels, on science. COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths have decreased dramatically across states, and the vaccines are nearly 100 percent effective at preventing them in individuals. 

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We seem to forget that, if not for the leaders who’ve thumbed their noses at the science on masks and vaccines, and encouraged their supporters to do the same, we wouldn’t be in this precarious position. 

It almost feels surreal looking back at how the pandemic and our national response unfolded now. But had former President TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Has Trump beaten the system? MORE and his right-wing media megaphone not falsely announced to their followers that COVID-19 was just like the flu; had he not said nearly 40 times that COVID-19 would just disappear; had he not mocked people for wearing masks; had he given a more full-throated endorsement of the vaccines; more people might be alive today. More Americans would likely be vaccinated by this point.

When a leader as divisive as the former president persuades millions of Americans to ignore evidence and established science, we get the kind of profound polarization that is paralyzing America today.

You don’t fix this kind of schism over the weekend. But this is the issue we should be addressing — not getting mad at the CDC for adjusting its recommendations based on new information and evolving science. 

As an ER doctor in a very vaccine resistant part of rural west Michigan, I’ll admit I was dismayed at the CDC’s latest mask recommendations. My state, which continues to follow CDC guidance, is counting on vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals to follow an honor system, act in good faith and wear — or not wear — a mask based on whether they’ve gotten the shot(s). 

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Only 44 percent of the people who live in the health department district that covers my hospital have been vaccinated, 14 points lower than Michigan’s statewide rate as of the last week of May. Based on this data, at any given store in my county, six in 10 people should be wearing a mask. The reality is not so encouraging. I have honestly stopped going into businesses in the community in which I work because, other than those who are employees, for months I have rarely seen a mask being worn.

In my county, and in large swathes of Michigan, people ditched their masks a long time ago. The new CDC guidance doesn’t change this. They’ll likely continue to go without masks as they have been, regardless of whether they’re vaccinated. 

Of course, with people now more freely mingling in enclosed spaces without masks to block airborne COVID-19 transmission, chances go up that an asymptomatic carrier can spread the virus to an uninfected, unvaccinated and unmasked person. Without the mitigating barrier of masks, even a vaccinated person faces the risk of getting sick when exposed enough times to a large enough number of sick people, like being in a Lotto hopper while the virus ping-pongs around. This is how math and outbreaks work. 

So asking the CDC for clarification on its mask guidance is appropriate.

The real solution, however, is overcoming the misinformation schism that has evolved over the last year and getting more people vaccinated. 

Polls show that conservative Republicans who voted for Trump remain staunchly vaccine resistant. Many Republican leaders and heirs to Trumpism are only making things worse. 

In an act indicating his approval of COVID-19 outbreaks on the high seas, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis refused to act in favor of public health when Norwegian Cruise Line said it needed to identify vaccinated individuals to protect passengers and crew because cruise ships are self-contained vessels that pack hundreds of people in tight quarters for days on end. 

Republican Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonThe Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi considers adding GOP voices to Jan. 6 panel McConnell pushes vaccines, but GOP muddles his message Ron Johnson: 'I may not be the best candidate' for 2022 midterms MORE (R-Wis.) goes even further, contorting data to push the dangerous narrative that vaccines are killing people. Johnson is categorically, unequivocally wrong.

Bad faith actors are the ones contributing to an honor system that, for many, is anything but honorable. Their policies of disinformation and division are why the honor system doesn’t work for people who have loved ones at home with compromised immunity, or a child recovering from cancer, or a wife or husband with a heart or lung disease. 

We can be confused about the CDC’s guidelines and concerned about the honor system. But let’s not lose sight of who prevents us from being able to trust the honor system. We must hold these divisive sowers of disinformation accountable.

Dr. Rob Davidson is an emergency physician in West Michigan and the executive director of the Committee to Protect Health Care.