The Pandemic is Finally Ending

We are coming to the end of this pandemic nightmare, yet there is still so much chaos, uncertainty, and fear. It’s a lot to sort through, but I’m going to try and tackle some of it. Please sit down and buckle up, because this is a bit of a meandering rant and I state some opinions that you might disagree with. I’ve edited through it many times, and I think that — despite the rants — it is actually a hopeful message.

Tomato Lady

This essay started at the Portland Nursery. It was a sunny Monday morning, flowers were blooming, birds were chirping, and a new load of tomato starts had just arrived. In the midst of this tranquil scene there was an older lady, visibly flustered, feeling cornered, angrily yelling at other customers to give her a six-foot radius of space. I felt for her and her paralyzing fear; never mind that most shoppers were seniors who were likely to be vaccinated, everyone was wearing masks, and we were out of doors: there was Not! Enough! Space! Alas, in order to feature dozens and dozens of varieties, Tomato Row was only 5 feet wide.

Photo by Vince Lee on Unsplash

We Are at the Finish Line, Sort Of

I have previously predicted the pandemic would be over by the end of May, and we appear to be nicely on track for that. Case numbers are down, masks are becoming less common, and businesses are starting to reopen across the country.

But even though the pandemic is winding down, we will not be going back to the old normal. The pandemic has left us with a lot of fear, a greater concern for disease transmission, and a newfound caution about proximity to others.

Consider Tomato Lady, who had an approximately 0% chance of catching COVID from masked outdoor shoppers but was visibly and acutely uncomfortable around people. The reality is that there are a lot of people in the world, and especially for those of us who have chosen to live in an urban setting, we need to be able to accept close physical proximity in order to make city life work. Whether it is walking on the sidewalk, or shopping at the farmers market, bumping into others is a part of the experience.

Consider also schools, which continue to have limited class sizes which necessitate this ineffective hybrid learning model. The CDC updated guidelines say that schools need to maintain only three feet of distance between students when they wear masks, but school systems are continuing to err on the side of caution with 6’ spacing. This maintains a 4x decrease in density, at the expense of the in-person human contact and collaboration that our students have been missing out on for the last year.

A CDC Rant

I don’t blame the schools for ignoring the CDC update in favor of keeping kids safe. After this year of mixed messages, how much does the public trust CDC guidelines, anyway? Remember back when the CDC said masks were unnecessary? Remember also last week, when CDC Director Dr. Walensky testified to Congress that masks were still needed…and then nearly the next day the CDC released a statement that (for vaccinated peoples) masks were not needed, even indoors? Meanwhile, their guidelines are sticking with universal masks for outdoor summer camps this year? And the CDC has told us that outdoor transmission is “less than 10%” even though the risk is really probably less than 0.1% at the most? (aside: It is factually correct that you have a less than 10% chance of getting hit by a car today, but it is misleading, as you would probably not leave your house if you thought there was a 1/10 chance of getting run over. It is much more accurate to say that you have a less than 0.1% chance of getting hit by a car.)

I do not think the CDC should make the rules. I believe that the CDC’s role should be to accurately review the scientific literature and break it down into facts that are easily understood by everyone (even politicians). That way, individuals and cities and legislators can understand the data and make rules that are based on one common scientific understanding, and that best serve their communities.

To rephrase that thought, I would like to see the CDC become the trusted voice of science, not a spin agency, and not the maker of regulations. That way, each different location, after considering their local case counts and weighing their tolerance for risk, could decide on what rules make sense for them. That would be better than the CDC issuing mask rules, and then having Texas and Oregon both ignore them in our own polarized ways.

As it stands, fewer people are listening to the CDC, especially politicians: How did Congress respond to the new CDC guidelines? Not surprisingly, it was in a political rather than scientific fashion as they voted along party lines to continue wearing masks in Congress. No dialogue on science, just another blue vs. red vote. Sigh.

Red Hats and Blue Masks

Last week I shared that “masks are like the red Maga hat for Democratic party voters”. I know that comment rubbed some readers the wrong way, but take a look at the House’s mask vote and the quote sure appears to have been correct! I don’t believe that the Democrats (100% vaccinated) really care about protecting the handful of unvaccinated Republicans in Congress, so this mask vote is nothing but political showmanship.

Some of my friends have told me that they’re going to continue to wear masks as a “show of solidarity”. But solidarity with who? Solidarity with people who have chosen not to get vaccinated? Solidarity with those who are not anti-mask? Is this virtue signaling, and does it send the wrong message?

My Signal

If you’re reading this and feel that your feathers are a bit ruffled, please hear me out: I believe that by not wearing a mask you can signal three important things:

#1: I got vaccinated, and I’m proud to have made a decision that benefits my — and your — health and safety.

#2: I believe in science, and I understand statistics, and that we are safe.

#3: The pandemic is ending, and it is OK to go back to living our lives.

There are, of course, still times that masks make sense. Crowded stores, my shifts in the ER, etc. And yes, I know that some folks have only had their first dose and are still awaiting a second, which reinforces my support for wearing a mask at Whole Foods or at the Post Office.

True also, that kids under the age of 12 haven’t been vaccinated. But COVID is rare and usually low-risk in kids (so much so that some experts are saying that we should ship our vaccines to India instead of bothering with vaccinating American youth) and now that many parents have had their shots, pediatric cases are becoming even rarer.

What about the people who chose not to get the vaccine? Welp, that was their decision to make, and they can even decide not to wear a mask if they want. I’m protected thanks to my vaccine, and that’s what matters to me. I feel no obligation to protect those who chose not to get vaccinated and choose not to wear a mask.

You don’t have to agree with me, and if you’re one of the people who intend to wear your mask forever, that’s cool and I respect your decision. I just want you to know why I’m maskless, and that that’s cool too.

The Fear Will Persist, But There is Hope

Portland had a relatively light brush with the pandemic compared to other hard-hit areas, there seems to be more lingering fear here than in many other parts of the country. Tomato Lady is certainly not alone, as fear and Zeroism have a firm foundation here.

Portland is not the only place slow to move past the pandemic, of course. Lots of other blue States are being cautious, but even the left-leaning media outlets are starting to accuse us of choosing fear over science.

I can’t really blame areas that want to remain cautious. But in case you’re still worried about what might happen when we decide to put the pandemic behind us, don’t forget that other places have been doing the no-mask thing for the last few months, and you can take a look at Texas results for reassurance (click on the Trends tab near the bottom). Not too shabby for a state with 7x the population of Oregon and that has been maskless since March 10th!

In summary, wear a mask, or don’t. It’s your choice, and the end of the pandemic is here regardless. Bask in the sunshine, meet up face-to-face, and enjoy the fact that counties are moving to Low Risk and all the important metrics are all going in the right direction!

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