Constable: Mask mandates are magically disappearing, but many still need masks to remain
The pandemic responsible for killing nearly a million Americans hasn't magically disappeared, but it has waned to the point where the mask mandates some condemned in the name of liberty are gone. The people who benefit from masks are still here, however, and that means masks won't magically disappear, either.
"The pandemic is not over, in my opinion," says Ally Hembd, a 25-year-old Wheeling native who received a lifesaving transplanted kidney in 2020 and now takes immunosuppressive drugs that make her vulnerable to infections. In spite of getting the vaccine and being judicious with her mask use, Hembd, a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was diagnosed with COVID-19 after Christmas, got a mild case of pneumonia and received a monoclonal antibody treatment that helped her symptoms, but lowered her immune system's ability to fight new infections.
"I'll be wearing a mask," says Hembd, whose multiple negative COVID tests led her transplant team to end her quarantine and clear her to return to classes in person this past week.
Doctors agree vaccinations are the best way to protect yourself against the coronavirus. But high-quality masks provide a level of added protection.
As the rest of society returns to life before the pandemic, transplant recipients, cancer patients, people with lupus, HIV and other conditions that affect the immune system, and the unvaccinated remain at risk, says Dr. Tom Oryszczak, chief medical officer for Northwest Community Healthcare, which operates Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights and numerous medical facilities throughout the suburbs.
"They are people in a very difficult situation," Oryszczak says, adding that people assessing whether they should wear a mask need to take into consideration their own health, the health of people they are likely to come in contact with and the settings of those interactions with others.
"People who are at high risk of COVID should keep wearing masks," says Dr. Emily Landon, executive medical director of infection prevention and control for University of Chicago Medicine. About 4% of Americans are immunocompromised and at risk of COVID-19 making them extremely ill or even killing them, says Landon, whose rheumatoid arthritis puts her in that group.
"That means our families and close friends will take additional precaution," Landon adds, noting that her perfectly healthy 13-year-old son wears a mask to help protect her. "So 10% of Americans really need to keep their masks on."
The effect of the pandemic can be difficult to comprehend.
"When it gets into the numbers game, people become desensitized by really large numbers," says Hembd, who is a statistics major. If just 10% of Americans still wear masks in some settings, that's 33 million people, far more than the combined populations of our 10 largest cities, and enough to qualify as our second-largest state.
"It's not just people who are bed-bound or in nursing homes. It can be a fifth-grade teacher, a reporter, a school bus driver or someone checking out a book at a library," Landon notes.
"I'm still terrified of COVID, even though I've had it," says Hembd, who notes that even going to the facility where she recently tested negative for the virus required her to walk along a crowded sidewalk. "I was the only one wearing a mask. I was getting stared at," Hembd says. "I was like, 'Guys, COVID is still a thing.'"
Being immunocompromised or having a suppressed immune system doesn't mean you are sick, just that your immune system doesn't work the way it should or at all, Hembd says. People often don't understand the implications of that.
"A simple cold or the flu could put me in the hospital, along with other immunocompromised patients," Hembd says, noting that some people who know she is immunocompromised still remove their masks and lean in to talk with her as soon as they exit a building. "I have to constantly be on my guard to try and avoid people who have slight sniffles or who cough. It's incredibly stressful."
Being in a crowd of fellow mask-wearers comforts Jeri Davis, a Wheaton woman and author of "Greetings from Chemo Country: An irreverent and often inappropriate coloring book about chemotherapy."
"After being diagnosed with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy during COVID, I was even more appreciative of masks because you feel so vulnerable and exposed during this time," says Davis, director of development for the Naperville Art League. "Being immunocompromised, I wasn't venturing out much, but when I did and saw everyone masked-up, I felt more safe and secure and protected in my surroundings. There seemed an unspoken mutual respect because we were on the same page."
Businesses, or politicians, who ban masks are more than disrespectful.
"Let go of this idea that 'I don't want to see other people in a mask.' It's as ridiculous as saying, 'I don't want to see any more wheelchairs,'" Landon says. "It's un-American. You don't get to have an opinion about my medical conditions. If you are thinking about telling someone they don't need a mask anymore, you should shut your mouth."
When we see a person using a cane, wearing glasses or sporting a hearing aid, we figure they need those devices, not that they are making a political statement.
"Masks were never a political statement but more a sign of people's sense that 'we're all in this together,'" Davis says. "I knew I could spread a potentially dangerous virus without realizing it, so why wouldn't I wear a mask, and why wouldn't others do the same, especially with so many people dying?"
Even people with strong lungs and healthy immune systems have benefited from masks.
"My mask helps you. Your mask helps me," says Mimi Guiracocha, manager of health promotions for the American Lung Association. "I haven't had a cold in a couple of years."
A graduate of Wheaton College, Guiracocha, a registered nurse, worked in the newborn intensive care unit before getting a doctoral degree in advanced public health nursing. She says there are myriad reasons why people might still continue to wear a mask, even if the government and health officials no longer require them.
"Be kind to those who choose to wear a mask," Guiracocha says. "We don't know where they are coming from."