In a recent conference call between local health officials from across Wisconsin, they discussed whether you, as vaccinated health leaders, should continue to wear their masks.
Even if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention new guidelines published last month That fully vaccinated people could safely walk without a mask in most public facilities, the decision is so subjective that one county health officer may still wear a mask at the grocery store while another leaves his at home.
Health officials couldn’t agree on a single best approach, said Kurt Eggebrecht, the former city of Appleton health officer.
In Wisconsin, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have decreased sharply since last fall. Still, an average of 104 inhabitants per day Tested positive in the last week and only 43% of the state are fully vaccinated against the virus, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health. No infants were vaccinated.
We asked five Wisconsin health professionals what’s on their mind, and they weren’t all on the same page, either.
If you’ve been wondering what to do during this ethically and socially difficult time, don’t feel guilty: you have a well-informed society. Here are your thoughts.
Kurt Eggebrecht, former Appleton City Health Officer
Eggebrecht, on the 4th conference call.
It is important that his community, as a trusted health official, see that he has been vaccinated and that he is confident of the vaccination’s effectiveness, he said.
(Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in clinical trials reduced both disease and deaths from the virus by more than 90%; Johnson & Johnson vaccine achieved this by about 72% in the U.S. New, real-world data show the Vaccines reduce the transmission of the virus, also.)
He has masks in his pocket or in the car in case he needs one on the go, but is otherwise able to smile at the people he greets. His first unmasked church visit felt strange, he said, but it helped understand how protected he was.
Amanda Simanek, Associate Professor of Epidemiology, UW-Milwaukee
Simanek, like many other Wisconsinites, currently belongs to a “mixed vaccine” family – she, her husband, and her oldest child are fully vaccinated; their 5 and 10 year olds are not. Although coronavirus cases seem to be milder in children, it gives her a different outlook on the next few months than those without young children.
As an epidemiologist, she said, it is also important to her to protect people at the population level, not just at the individual level. That means looking out for people who haven’t been vaccinated yet, not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have the resources to do it.
Even in places where she personally feels safe, she tends to be more careful when masking because she thinks, “Well, if everyone ignores caution, it won’t work.”
“If I’m careful for longer, it helps in a certain way to further slow down the transmission of this infection,” said Simanek, “I’m ready to do that.”
Simanek urges people to be empathetic over the next few months when deciding where and when to mask. We are in a much safer place than last summer, she said, but these decisions require thoughtful discussions.
Dr. James Conway, Infectious Disease Expert at UW-Madison’s Global Health Institute
Conway said he kept a calculator on his mind all the time with the various variables he used to decide whether to put on a mask.
When he’s outside, he doesn’t wear one. (At least that is what experts agree on: The virus doesn’t spread much outdoors.) If the grocery store is crowded, it will. If a company has mask rules, it will respect them. In restaurants he goes to his table mask-free, but will decide to wear one when entering if it is particularly full or if others are doing this.
It also takes into account vaccination and transmission rates in the community. In Dane County, which in May the highest vaccination rates of every major district in the US, he said he felt safe. This variable changes when he visits other places.
“For most people, it’s black or white – masked or unmasked,” Conway said. “It’s very difficult to think about these gray areas that we have to live in right now.”
Malia Jones, UW-Madison Social Epidemiologist
Like Simanek, Jones has young, unvaccinated children – and when she brings them inside, she continues to mask herself to model this behavior for them.
When she is alone, “it’s a mess. I don’t know what to do,” she said. While confident that the vaccine will protect her, she worries about the message she sends to the service staff when she walks in unmasked. She usually makes the decision based on the signs on the front door of the store or what most of the other people are doing inside.
She said that she will often put her mask on halfway through a store when she feels it necessary or, conversely, take it off when she is comfortable. She also has a button that says “I have been vaccinated” on her purse.
For Jones, however, the CDC guidance came as an unwelcome shock. She said she believed it was a betrayal of public health principles.
“The goal is to protect everyone, and especially the most vulnerable, with policies and guidelines that protect those at risk,” said Jones. “It’s a group project.”
Some people are still struggling to get access to the vaccine – nearly half of unvaccinated adults in the United States said they were concerned that they might miss their jobs due to side effects according to a survey by the May Kaiser Family Foundation. Others with weakened immune systems may not be able to have as strong a response to the virus from the vaccine. For these people, she doesn’t feel that the leadership had their best in mind.
Patrick Remington, director of UW-Madison’s preventive medicine residency program
Remington said he went to a coffee shop last week unmasked, told the masked barista behind the counter he was fully vaccinated and asked if it was okay not to wear one.
She told him it was okay, but it was important for him to ask. He didn’t want her to guess if she was in danger around him.
Remington, a former CDC epidemiologist, recommends these quick conversations as a way of addressing masking decisions in the coming months. He was asked at restaurants, at businesses, or while visiting a friend – the question even allowed him to share some information about the effectiveness of the vaccine with a person who said they had not yet received the vaccine.
Proof that we are at a nebulous point: the decisions he would make as an individual are not the same as those he would recommend to an organization. Remington is a member of a Madison ski club that has chosen to continue using masks on its indoor facility.
He carries masks with him everywhere in case the person on the other end of the conversation asks him to put one on. He also said it was important to remember that while we are making progress in fighting the virus, we are not out of the woods yet.
“It’s the end of the fourth quarter,” said Remington. “We just have to keep an eye on the ball.”