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New CDC mask guidance gets mixed reactions — and not just from the GOP

People who got vaccinated so they could toss their masks are frustrated by the switch.
Image: People wear masks around Times Square, as cases of the infectious coronavirus Delta variant continue to rise in New York City, New York
People wear masks around Times Square on Friday as cases of the delta coronavirus variant continue to rise in New York City.Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

Six months ago, Dr. Sarah Fortune could see an end to the pandemic.

Wednesday morning, Fortune, chair of the immunology and infectious diseases department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, woke up with "existential dread" about the future of Covid-19.

That's despite new guidance released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that suggests that everyone, vaccinated or not, wear masks indoors in places where Covid-19 is rapidly spreading.

Fortune supports the new guidance, which has been widely praised by experts like her, saying it will surely save lives.

Still, "masking is just not the solution," she said.

Case numbers are climbing as a fourth wave of infection caused by the delta variant sweeps the country. Hospitalizations in states with low vaccination rates are surging. Suddenly, cities and counties are reinstating indoor mask mandates that they just triumphantly repealed — now with the CDC's support.

The guidance announced Tuesday has been met with outrage from many Republican officials and caused frustration among the already vaccinated. To some who study infectious diseases, it feels like dispatching a single lifeboat to a sinking ship with 50 people on board.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said Wednesday that he will sue the city of Kansas City over its new indoor mask mandate.

"This mask mandate is about politics & control, not science," Schmitt, a Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate, said on Twitter. "You are not subjects but citizens of what has been the freest country in the world & I will always fight for you."

He has been joined by a chorus of prominent voices on the right who are deriding the new guidance.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said "forcing masks undermines public trust in vaccines." Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said on Fox News that the guidance was "absurd" and "100 percent politics, not science." In a fiery speech on the House floor Wednesday, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, asked, "Which is it, vaccines or masks?"

Their rebukes are no surprise; masks have been deeply politicized, and mandates have drawn strong opposition from Republicans since they were first imposed in spring 2020.

This time, however, they aren't alone in their resentment.

When Raven Hecht heard about the change, she couldn't help but feel a bit frustrated.

"It was like, 'Here we go again,'" said Hecht, 25, a radio promoter from New Jersey. Hecht was vaccinated and has always been diligent about wearing masks. She doesn't find it too much of an inconvenience and has still been wearing masks when she runs errands like going to the pharmacy.

"I've been doing my part this entire time," she said. "The U.S. as a whole just continues to undermine itself. We are so close to ending this."

Hecht said that on a micro level, the policy is a good thing but no panacea.

"I think the only way we are going to see real change on a macro level is if companies start mandating vaccines," she said. And more are.

On Wednesday, Google, Facebook and Lyft separately announced that they would mandate vaccinations for all employees returning to offices. President Joe Biden is expected to announce Thursday that all federal workers need to be vaccinated or face frequent testing. On Monday, the Department of Veteran Affairs became the first federal agency to require employees to be vaccinated.

That's more effective policy than requiring masks, some public health experts say.

"In terms of telling everyone who's been vaccinated that they need to now start wearing a mask again — I think that's going to be very little bang for our buck in terms of trying to reduce transmission right now," Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration who is a member of Pfizer's board, said in an interview Wednesday with NPR.

Like so many others, Fortune of Harvard is sick of wearing a mask at work and in public places.

Once the vaccines were available, "I was one of those people who was like, 'Let's take our masks off!'" Fortune said. "At Harvard, I was like: 'This mask mandate is crazy. We are home free.'"

Now, things feel different. "Not only are we not home free; the finish line is going to shift depending on the evolution of the virus," she said.

Fortune is worried that the country has created "the perfect cooker for the worst kind of virus." At the 50 percent vaccination levels in many parts of the country, there is "plenty of opportunity for the virus to see immunized individuals, infect them, set up shop and armageddon."

The only long-term solution is high vaccination coverage, she said. In lieu of that — which some people already think is a lost cause — Fortune can imagine a world where the virus continually evolves to escape coverage and there are more and more deadly waves.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she lives and where cases remain low, she has ditched her mask in some but not all public indoor spaces. Soon she will be in New Orleans, where case numbers are much higher. There, she will be wearing her mask more often.