The Public health messaging about masks in the US wasn’t always definitive, as we noted last year. Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly switched from discouraging mask-wearing to encouraging it. It quickly became clear that masks were a key component in slowing the spread of the virus until treatments or a vaccine arrived.
More than a year later, we have multiple effective vaccines, all Americans age 12 or older are now eligible to get the shot, and appointments are easier to come by. To reflect this increasing hopefulness, the CDC recently relaxed its guidelines on masks. Fully vaccinated people can now forgo masks both indoors and outdoors (with many exceptions, such as on public transit).
But the decision is befuddling. Again. Do we have to prove we’re vaccinated? Do businesses have to make new rules? And if so, who is in charge of enforcing them? I’m already socially awkward after more than a year in lonely isolation, and my limited ventures into the outside world have become even more fraught.
On one recent walk, a neighbor and I stopped 10 feet away from each other on the sidewalk and dug masks out of our bags. “I’m vaccinated!” she shouted. “So am I!” I yelled back. Both of us put on our masks anyway and gave each other embarrassing, apologetic head nods as we passed. I thought, there has to be a better way—so I called some experts in public health communications for advice.
In the wake of vaccinations, celebratory stickers, buttons, T-shirts, and bracelets indicating you got the shot(s) have sprung up online. It’s easy to dismiss all this vaccine swag as opportunistic profiteering, but these small, joyful, and affordable homegrown vaccination signals serve an important purpose.
For more than a year, face masks were the first line of protection we had against a deadly disease, and refusing to wear one was a political signal. When we see another unmasked person now, we have to just trust that they’re vaccinated. After a year of unrelenting divisiveness, relying on the honor system feels like a risky proposition. But widespread attention to anti-vaxxers and the vaccine-hesitant can obscure the fact that most people are taking steps to protect themselves and others.
“The actual number of people who are refusing to comply [with vaccinations] is actually very small,” says Vish Viswanath, the Lee Kum Kee Professor of Health Communication at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Only 20 percent of Americans say they won’t get the vaccine (though these polls were taken before the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was paused). More than 131 million people in the US have been vaccinated, and that number is still rising, though the pace has slowed.
A few months ago, signaling that you’d been vaccinated could backfire or open you to scorn and charges that you got the vaccine before other, perhaps more deserving people. But now that vaccination appointments are much easier to come by, wearing a pin, sticker, or T-shirt contributes to creating a new social norm.
“You have to have public support, not public confusion,” Viswanath says. If you live in an area where 80 percent of the population has been vaccinated and you walk into a room full of “I’m Vaccinated” pins, you might feel a lot better about taking off your mask.
It helps that a lot of the swag is cute, and it’s a low-key, affordable way to commemorate the beginning of the end of a life-changing year. I picked up an enamel pin from Etsy, where small, adorable vaccination merch has proliferated. The CDC has printable stickers, as well as digital resources for posting your vaccination status on social media. You might also want to check local businesses for apparel options too.
When shopping for pins or T-shirts, try to avoid sporting slogans that are scolding or aggressive.
“I don’t think being snarky helps,” says Susan Krenn, executive director for the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs. “It can be off-putting and just furthers the divides that we’re already feeling around masking and vaccination, and how politics has come into that.”
Krenn’s job is to work with governments and communities to encourage people to adopt healthy behaviors. During the Covid-19 pandemic, those behaviors included masking and vaccination.
“This timeline has been incredibly challenging, because things change so quickly,” Krenn says. “Even if it’s a year and a half old, it’s a new pandemic. We have to be flexible or adaptable as we move forward. The ambiguity makes all of this harder.”
It’s OK to err on the side of caution, Krenn says. There are still many settings where the mask mandate remains clear, such as public transportation, health care, and places where large groups of people congregate indoors, like churches. In more ambiguous areas, we’re all learning to navigate a respectful, comfortable language of consent. I’m vaccinated, are you? Do you feel comfortable taking off your mask, or do you feel comfortable if I do?
Whichever way you choose to talk about vaccination, stay respectful and remember that there are valid reasons why people are staying masked. Maybe they’re immunocompromised or they don’t want to risk infecting unvaccinated young children at home.
Everyone I spoke to says there are many instances where they will continue wearing masks, especially in health care or crowded settings. Even as the CDC’s guidelines relax, wearing a mask doesn’t mean a person is unnecessarily paranoid or doesn’t believe in science.
“Mask wearing shouldn’t necessarily go away,” Krenn says. “Continued mask-wearing signals that even if I’m vaccinated, there may be people around us who aren’t. This is a preventative measure that we take for people who can’t get vaccinated. And the pandemic is not over. We’re in great shape from where we were a while back, but it’s not over.”
When I related my story about my neighbor and our mask confusion, the researchers I spoke with laughed and said that situation was not as bad, nor as uncomfortable, as it felt at the time. “It’s actually a good thing that we are being cautious about it,” Viswanath says. “Most people are like you and this person. We are complying with public health regulations. The messages have reached us. We focus on the fighting on airplanes, but most people are doing the right things. I think it will take some time to get over that discomfort, and that’s perfectly fine.”
And even if many of us are confused by the CDC’s guidance, that does not necessarily mean it is wrong, or that mask-shaming anyone—for wearing or not wearing one—will help move us closer to the goal of reducing infections.
“I believe that the CDC’s guidance was grounded in science,” says Neil Maniar, director of urban health in the Master of Public Health program at Northeastern University. “There’s been a good amount of recent research coming out showing that the vaccines are far more effective than even what we initially believed, and there is evidence that we can start to relax some of the restrictions for fully vaccinated individuals.”
But as Krenn stressed, the pandemic isn’t over yet. Maniar says people should not let down their guard too soon or there will be another surge.
“The more that we can communicate the importance of the vaccine in an honest and transparent way that can address the concerns and try to reduce the divisiveness around this, the greater the likelihood that we’ll be able to put this pandemic behind us once and for all,” he says.
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