Zorba Paster: The CDC Is Right About Masks, But Don’t Discard Yours Just Yet

Masks May Be A Precautionary Measure During Flu Season

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Illustration of two face coverings to protect against COVID-19
Will wearing two masks better protect me from the virus? Peter Hamlin/AP Illustration

Shall we or shall we not take off our masks? That is the question, isn’t it?

Yep. It’s something that Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, resolved in some part with the recent announcement on masks.

The CDC said most of us who have been fully immunized — and more on that in a bit — can take off our masks in the majority of places and enjoy the life we had before the COVID-19 pandemic.

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So, let’s dive deeper into this before I give you a simple but still thorny answer.

First, let’s remember back to the very beginning of the pandemic. At the time, infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci — whom I hold in the highest esteem — said masks didn’t matter so much. Hard to recall back that far, but initially the CDC did not think masks made a significant difference.

But science marched on, information came in, and science adapted. That’s exactly why science is such a powerful philosophy — and, yes, science was just a subgroup of philosophy back in the day.

Given the new findings, we put on masks. Or at least those of us who believed in science put on masks.

Then we entered the netherworld of politics. People said masks took away their liberty.

Incidentally, that’s also what people said in the 1890s when they were asked not to spit on the floor or in the streets. Those spittoons you might see in antique stores were a major step forward in combating tuberculosis, often spread through spitting.

Those infected with the deadly germ — which, by the way, still kills 1 million to 2 million people every year — were told to keep their spit out of the way or to themselves.

Soon after spittoons, there were handkerchiefs. If you look at old photos from Marshall Field’s, that wonderful old department store in Chicago, there were counters and counters of women’s and men’s hankies. The hankies of the 1890s are the masks of today.

If you pull out a handkerchief or that eventual Kimberly-Clark invention, tissue, you’re pulling out a bit of history of TB prevention.

Now, I ask you, is spitting into a tissue a political statement? I don’t think so. But I know it was back in the day until everyone decided that clean spit-free floors were the way we all wanted to live.

Back to masks.

I was surprised these safety things somehow became practically synonymous with gun rights. But then again, there was pushback when it came to seat belts and pushback when it came to smoking.

I never thought there would be no smoking in bars in Wisconsin, but there you go. Now, that’s just the way it is. Like science, society changes and adapts. And thus would be the case with masks.

Now, the masking folks — and I’m one of them — were shocked when the CDC revised its mask recommendations, but the CDC scientists are right. I’ve looked at the data, and I agree with them.

According to the CDC, two weeks after your second Pfizer or Moderna vaccine shot or two weeks after your single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you can go outside mask free. You can go mask-free indoors as well, into stores and restaurants that don’t require masks. Awesome.

You can’t go into places that still require masks — hospitals, doctor’s offices, nursing homes or other places that still want to be cautious. But for most places, mask-free is OK.

So who is giving pushback here? Well, it’s obviously not the anti-maskers, but many of them didn’t believe they could be infected with this hideous bug in the first place. They were wrong there.

And it’s not as if this thing is going away. It’s not. This herd immunity stuff is just a statistician’s dream.

Even if you had that magic 75 percent or 80 percent immunization rate, that would pretty much mean the vaccinated people were concentrated in forward-thinking communities like Dane County, my home. It’s No. 1 in the country in immunizations. Go Dane County. Go Madison.

But even here, there are pockets of non-immunized people who are going to mingle and get sick. I can’t stop that. If they want to take a chance, I cannot stop them. Just like I can’t stop fast speeders or folks who don’t take the yearly flu shot.

Which gets me to my last thought, influenza. It kills 30,000 to 70,000 people a year. We live with that. Once COVID-19 is in that range, then we’re just where we’ve lived for a long time.

This year, the flu killed far fewer people in this country because more of us have been masked up. We saved ourselves from having about 50,000 influenza deaths because we were socially distanced and masked.

Maybe next year during flu season we’ll be smart and wear masks again while we shop. Maybe that would be as acceptable in the future as not spitting on the ground.

We can wait and see, but I envision masks in the future during the flu season. I’m sure going to wear one.

My spin: Follow the science. If the science says you can toss your mask because you’re immunized against COVID-19, then do it if you feel comfortable. It definitely will feel strange at first, but let me tell you, a no-mask existence is something I can get used to again.

It’s fun to enjoy the clean, fresh air. Fun to go to outdoor music festivals. Fun to go out with 25 best friends to our fabulous traditional patriotic Paster 4th of July party — all mask-free.

Stay well.

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