still masked

Last Friday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed their methods of assessing COVID risk to include the strain on the health care system, resulting in about 70% of the population now being classified as being in low or medium risk areas, meaning that indoor masking in public places and distancing measures can be rolled back.

However, Broome County, New York, where I live, is still in the high risk category. In the even more granular Covid Act Now tracker, our risk level is rated as very high, the fourth of five levels, with 26 daily new cases per 100,000 residents as of today, February 27.

The problem is that, when New York State rescinded its mask mandate, our local government also rescinded theirs. Our local conditions don’t warrant that, but, without a rule in place, the vast majority of people will not be masking in public, which will likely delay further progress in getting our case numbers down. Another thing that would help would be increasing our vaccine booster rate, which has crept up to 34% but is still low for our state, as is the 63% full vaccinated rate.

Earlier this month when New York dropped its mask mandate, I posted that I would continue to wear an N95 in public and to avoid crowds in an effort to stay COVID free. As a participant in the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial, I am supposed to be following CDC protocols. With our county still being at high risk according to the current CDC map, I am still in compliance with my obligations to the trial.

The next decision point for me will be when Broome County finally gets into a lower risk category. In discussions with my personal physicians, they have advised attempting to avoid infection entirely for as long as possible. I share in this viewpoint. Many public health commentators have gone to the less stringent goal of trying to keep out of the hospital or dying from COVID and to prevent strain on the health care system. I, however, want to protect myself, my family and friends, and my community from being infected at all, so they won’t have to deal with the threat of severe illness, long COVID, and long-term cardiovascular, pulmonary, or neurological damage that can follow infection, even in those who didn’t have serious enough symptoms to warrant hospitalization.

The CDC does say in their guidance that “People may choose to mask at any time.” That will probably be me for quite some time yet, unless our county improves dramatically soon.

Lent is about to start. I’m trying to be hopeful that our situation will improve enough that I can safely drop my crowd avoidance in time to participate in some of the Lenten and Holy Week liturgies. We’ll see.

politics and/or science

Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve posted frequently about it, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial in which B, T, and I are participating, the evolving science on the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its variants, the similarly evolving public health recommendations, and how these are being implemented here in my home state of New York and elsewhere in the United States. I do sometimes comment on the pandemic in the UK and globally, but I know best what happens close to home.

Throughout the pandemic, New York had been in the vanguard of following the recommendations of public health experts, avoiding the tendency we have seen in so many other states to ignore the benefits of masking, distancing, limiting crowds, getting vaccinated, isolating if infected, etc.

That ended this week.

Governor Hochul bowed to public and political pressure and lifted the mask mandate for businesses. While it is true that statewide the peak of the Omicron wave has passed and the vaccination rate is decent, my county’s risk is still rated as very high, with 44.7 per 100,000 daily cases. Technically, New York as a state is also in the very high category with 31.2/100,000 today (February 11), but it is counties like mine that are keeping the state in that risk category rather than dropping into the (merely) high category. Medium and low risk are a long way off at this point.

Meanwhile, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending not only that everyone age two and over wear a mask while in public but also that those masks be N95 or similarly protective types because Omicron is so highly contagious. Alarmingly, an even more contagious omicron sub-variant has reached the US, making protective masks that much more important.

Does this sound like the proper time to end mask mandates for businesses in New York State?

Certainly not, if one is truly following the science.

The problem is that many people are tired of having to deal with the pandemic and are complaining very loudly. The politicians who had been following the science hear them and loosen the rules that had been helping to get their residents through the current wave with as little hospitalization and death as possible. This could extend the current omicron wave and increase the likelihood of yet another new variant that has the potential to be even more transmissible or evade current vaccines and treatments or cause more severe disease.

Regardless of New York State rules, I am continuing to follow medical advice, to avoid crowds, and wear an N95 when in public. Because I am vaccinated and boosted, I will still visit with people who are similarly protected without a mask. I had hoped to return to church services this weekend but have decided that I can’t do so with the daily case rate still being so high; being stationary in a room with that many people for over an hour is too much risk for me, even masked.

Sigh.

At some point, the pandemic will end and I will follow medical and scientific advice on what my “new normal” will be. I had hoped that our state policies would be an aid in this, as they had been through most of these past months, but that remains to be seen.

I’m just hoping that this latest relaxation of protections doesn’t cause even more cases than we have already suffered.

Update: Almost immediately after publishing this post, I saw reports of this study from the CDC, which shows that booster effectiveness wanes significantly after four months. Given that B, T, and I all had our boosters on the early side due to our participation in the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial, I’m all the more resolute in my vigilance regarding masking, distancing, etc. While we are all still likely to avoid severe disease or hospitalization due to our longer-than-four-months-ago boosters, I prefer to try to avoid infection entirely.

over COVID?

Over the last few weeks, many people here in the United States have said publicly that they are “over COVID” or “through with the pandemic” and are going to “go back to normal” which means living like they did before SARS-CoV-2 appeared.

Guess what? Pandemics don’t disappear just because we are tired or frustrated or in denial. There were 3,622 COVID deaths reported in the US yesterday, adding to the almost 900,000 deaths in the US since the start of the pandemic and 5.7 million deaths worldwide. These staggering totals are almost certainly undercounted, as some regions don’t have the will or capacity to track and report. Also, some deaths result from lasting heart, lung, or neurological damage from COVID rather than from the active infection itself and so may not be identified as COVID related.

Some people are saying we just have to live with COVID, as we do with flu and other viruses. Thus, they are saying that it is now endemic, but here is the problem. There is a specific definition of pandemic, “(of a disease) prevalent over a whole country or the world” (Oxford Languages). Looking at case numbers in the US and around the world, it’s obvious this is still a pandemic. We will get to a point where it is endemic, someday, through a mix of vaccination and immunity from having been infected, although no one yet knows how long immunity acquired through either route will last. Dictionary.com has a handy non-epidemiologist explainer of pandemic, epidemic, and endemic.

The subtext of being “over COVID” seems to be more along the lines of I’m tired of masking and distancing and avoiding crowds, so I’m just going to get back out there because a) I’m vaccinated/boosted so I don’t think I’ll get sick or at least not seriously so; b) I am young/strong/take vitamins/exercise so I’m not going to get sick; c) I don’t believe there is such a thing as this virus; d) you can’t tell me what to do; or e) we have to ease up on restrictions now so that we can re-institute them when the next variant or spike in cases occurs.

The thing is that a virus doesn’t care about your age or status or location. It’s only mission is to live and replicate and it will adapt to make that happen as easily and widely as possible. Exhibit A: the Omicron variant, which is wildly contagious and somewhat able to cause breakthrough infections in the vaccinated.

As regular readers here may recall, spouse B, daughter T, and I are all part of the Pfizer/BioNTech phase three vaccine trial. We are all vaccinated and boosted, although we were boosted on the early side of the curve, B and T as part of the trial that is contributing efficacy data that we see reported out in the news, and I who received a booster through the trial as soon as it was authorized for public use but before most people in my age range were eligible. I am also contributing data for the study, but I’m not on the leading edge like B and T. Therefore, while many of the boosted can get comfort from knowing that their immunity is likely still strong because the data from the trials is showing that, I don’t know if B and T might be showing a decline because there hasn’t been enough time to collect and analyze that data. I’m sure we would all love to know that booster immunity lasts a year or longer but it’s only been about seven months so far, so we can’t know. Likewise, we don’t know how long immunity lasts after infection.

I know that I am unlikely to become seriously ill, to be hospitalized, or to die if I contract COVID, but that doesn’t mean that I’m ready to be cavalier about it. I don’t want to be sick if I can prevent it by continuing with masking, distancing, and avoiding crowds. Even mild cases of COVID can result in months of symptoms, which is termed “long COVID.” As someone who has lived with a person suffering from FM/ME, which causes similar symptoms, I find the prospect of long COVID frightening.

What frightens me even more is the danger of spreading COVID to someone else. I have many friends who are older than I and at higher risk, as well as friends who are immunocompromised. Young children still are not eligible for immunization, although Pfizer/BioNTech has just applied for emergency use authorization for children 6 months-4 years of age, so perhaps that will begin in the coming weeks. I’m sure I also happen upon unvaccinated people because the fully vaccinated rate in my county is 62% and the boosted rate is only 33%. Some of the fully vaccinated are not yet booster eligible but we know that boosted people have the best chance against Omicron, so, if I am out in public, chances are that only 1 in 3 people I encounter will be a similar status to me.

Those are not great odds, especially with a variant as contagious as Omicron accounting for 99% of US cases. I have recently upped my mask protection to N95s, as I wrote about here. I’m learning how to deal with them as someone who needs progressive lenses in her glasses. The tighter fit of the N95 masks makes it difficult for my glasses to be in the correct position, so I can get a headache from eyestrain if I try to do close work for any length of time. Still, I’m trying to wear the N95s when I have to go out with a surgical mask/good quality cloth mask combo if I have to take the N95 off.

I used this site, https://covidactnow.org/us/new_york-ny/county/broome_county/?s=28791756, to find today’s Broome County statistics. (You can use it to find statistics in your area in the US. International data may be found here: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/.) It rates our risk level as “Extremely High.” While other may be “over COVID,” I am not ready to take that much risk for myself, my family, and my community.

As conditions change, I will re-evaluate and adjust my behavior as I see fit. Until then, I hope that those I meet will respect my viewpoint.

I’m not “over COVID” yet.

N95s

With the immensely transmissible Omicron variant so prevalent, I’ve decided to try to get N95 masks to wear when I have to go out in public. I have been double-masking with a surgical mask under a very good quality cloth mask made by medicalwear producer Jaanuu but thought that I should probably go to an N95 mask which is designed to fit more closely and filter out 95% of particles under NIOSH standards. (NIOSH is the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.)

It’s somewhat difficult to find N95 masks in stores here. We did get a few from a home improvement store which stocks them because they are protective against dust and other particles for people doing construction or renovating. The problem is that they only carry one size which is too large for my petite face. I was able to find N95s in a size small online and a second fold-flat style that people complained about in the comments as running small, so I have ordered some. They won’t arrive until late this week or early next but I think I’ll be safe with my current mask set-up until then.

Or safe enough…

Masking is just one piece of our strategy. The three doses of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is my primary protection. The masks, avoiding crowds, distancing, etc. are additional measures to stay as safe as possible but, especially with Omicron, there are no guarantees.
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Vaccinated and (mostly) unmasked

Shortly after I wrote this post, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new guidance regarding mask wearing/distancing among fully vaccinated people in response to newly published research findings.

The good news is that fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks indoors with extremely low risk of contracting or spreading coronavirus. Mask wearing is still recommended in medical settings such as hospitals. Requirements to mask on public transport remain in effect, as do any mandates or policies put in place by state/local governments and businesses.

The bad news is that people who are not fully vaccinated might also stop wearing masks – and wouldn’t stand out because others would just assume if they weren’t wearing a mask that they were vaccinated – and so could be exposing themselves and their contacts to coronavirus, which would drive up infection rates. This is not helped by states that have already dropped their mask mandates or never had them in the first place.

Some governors immediately dropped their mask mandates while others, such as Governor Cuomo of New York where I live, are reviewing the situation before making any changes.

Personally, I expect that I, though vaccinated, will not be making many changes in my mask behavior immediately. The few stores that I frequent are likely to keep their mask policies in place for now. Visiting my father in the health care building of his senior community will probably still require masking because, although they are vaccinated, the residents are still vulnerable due to their age and underlying health problems. If the state does drop the mask mandate, small businesses, such as hair salons and restaurants, may decide to let vaccinated customers unmask and could easily ask for proof of vaccination to give peace of mind to their employees and customers.

I am frustrated by the media commentary surrounding this CDC announcement. For weeks, commentators have been complaining that the CDC was too slow in changing its recommendations for vaccinated people and that it was a disincentive to get vaccinated. The CDC was waiting for additional scientific findings to be published before making changes, but, now that they have, the commentators are complaining that it happened too fast.

They are also complaining that the CDC guidance is confusing. It’s not. It is meant for use on an individual level and it’s very clear about what activities fully vaccinated individuals can do without masking/distancing and what activities unvaccinated people can do without masking/distancing. The CDC and the federal government are not the ones with authority to require masks in stores, churches, etc. State and local governments and businesses do that.

So, please, everyone, stop whining, learn about the recommendations from the CDC and the policies in place in your local area, and behave accordingly for the safety of yourself and others.

If you are eligible for vaccination but haven’t done it yet, make arrangements to do so as soon as possible so you don’t become seriously ill or pass the virus on to someone else.

Remember to be kind and respectful to others. Some vaccinated people will choose to continue wearing masks because they are immunocompromised and more susceptible. I know people with allergies who are continuing to mask outdoors to protect themselves from high pollen counts. Some parents of children who are too young to be vaccinated wear their masks to be a good example for their children. It is not your business to criticize someone else’s decision and masking is never a wrong choice when it comes to public health. In some countries, masks have been common for years, especially during flu season or when there are air quality problems.

The CDC recommendations rely on public trust. Unvaccinated people need to demonstrate that they are worthy of trust by following the public health guidance. Overall infection and death rates are down, but they will spike again if people don’t continue to vaccinate and mask/distance until they complete the vaccine process. A spike might not happen until colder weather drives more people indoors, but it won’t happen at all if we can get the vast majority of teens and adults vaccinated by fall.

The prospect of the epidemic phase of COVID-19 being over by fall is within reach, but only if people follow this guidance and get vaccinated.

Let’s do it!

post-vaccine life

With my immediate family in the US vaccinated against COVID-19, we are inching our way back to a more interactive life while still following the national and New York State guidelines.

The most important thing that has happened for us personally is a greater ability to see my dad, known here as Paco, who lives nearby in the assisted living unit of his long-time senior community. After months of not being able to visit, we can now go to his apartment, albeit in pre-arranged thirty minute slots. I can also sign him out to go for a car ride; previously, he was only allowed away from the unit for medical care.

This has meant that I can see him more times per week and that I can take him out for treats. Last week, we went to an ice cream stand in the afternoon. This morning, I was able to bring him to get a doughnut and coffee. We are still being cautious about indoor spaces, so I don’t bring him into buildings. We enjoy our treats in the car or at outdoor tables.

The best thing, though, was that my older sister and her spouse were able to come visit for a couple of days last week. They hadn’t been able to visit since last summer. They live in Maryland and couldn’t enter New York until recently due to our travel/quarantine restrictions. Because of the vaccines, those have been relaxed. With all of us vaccinated, we were able to have everyone to our house for dinner. B made lasagna from Nana’s recipe, homemade Italian bread, sautéed asparagus, and apple pie. It was all delicious – and extra heartwarming to be together after so many months apart.

We are also starting to work our way back to activities like dining indoors. I’ve had one lunch and one dinner inside restaurants. We wore masks when not eating or drinking and the tables were spaced so that we weren’t very close to other diners. We are likely to continue doing carryout more often than dining in for a while, especially because dining in most likely involves having to make reservations while carryout is easier to do spur-of-the-moment.

There was just a national policy announcement clarifying mask use recommendations for outdoor events in light of vaccinations. Vaccinated people can exercise, socialize in small groups, and eat outdoors without needing to wear a mask. They should, though, continue to mask if they are in a large group setting, such as a sporting event or concert where the crowd would be close together for extended periods. It is good to have this clarification, but it won’t make much difference for our family. New York has had a mask mandate in place for over a year, but it was adapted in order to deal with the circumstances. Given that we don’t live in a congested area, we were already accustomed to taking maskless walks in our neighborhood. If we stopped to talk to someone, we would just keep six feet of distance between us. Still, it was good to see that there are now different recommendations in place for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Perhaps it will serve as motivation for people who haven’t yet been vaccinated to arrange to do that. In many locations, you don’t even need to make an appointment in advance.

If people need more motivation to get vaccinated, they can switch on a news report from India to see the horrific toll that the virus takes when it sweeps through an unvaccinated population. The infection and hospitalization rates are staggering. A new variant has emerged and there are so many deaths that the system to handle them is overwhelmed.

This virus remains very dangerous, capable of inflicting serious illness and death. The vaccines are safe and very effective. Everyone aged sixteen and over in the United States has access to vaccine and should be immunized unless there is a personal medical issue that precludes it. If you don’t feel personally vulnerable, remember that, even if you yourself don’t get severe symptoms, you could pass the virus on to someone else who could become very ill or die.

The only way to end the pandemic is for there to be large-scale immunity everywhere. Every effort we make, whether it is our individual vaccination and precautions or our large-scale efforts such as sending vaccines, treatments, and supplies wherever they are needed around the world, is part of what is needed to end this.

And remember: People taking vaccines approved for emergency use are not “guinea pigs.” The “guinea pigs” are the hundreds of thousands of people like me and my family who volunteered to be in clinical trials. (B, T, and I are all part of the Pfizer/BioNTech phase III trial. I’ve posted about it a number of times over the past months.) Government agencies and the pharmaceutical companies are continuing to collect data and have affirmed that the dangers of contracting COVID are much, much greater than any side effects of the vaccine.

Please, everyone do your part to keep yourself and others safe. Vaccinate, mask, distance, and practice good hygiene. Pay attention to credible medical and public health sources. The rewards of being able to safely gather, to give a hug to a loved one, to see a friend’s smile are simple, yet profound.

We just need to work together to make it possible for everyone, everywhere.

Unmasked!

As my more frequent readers may recall, spouse B, daughter T, and I are all participants in the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine trial. The vaccine received emergency use authorization in the United States in December 2020. Pfizer is now unmasking people in the placebo group and offering to make them part of the vaccine group for further study as they plan to follow participants for two years to gather data on long-term efficacy.

Earlier this week, I received a call saying that I was in the placebo group, which B, T, and I had long suspected as they both had side effects after our injections but I did not. I will receive my first injection with the real vaccine in early February, timed to coincide with the end of the waiting period after the shingles vaccine I had this month. I am grateful for the opportunity to receive the vaccine and to contribute to the data which will help keep more people from suffering the worst consequences of COVID and eventually end the pandemic.

While we will still need to mask and distance, I’m hoping that, as I and others around me are vaccinated, I will be able to return to some places that I have not been able to visit. I may, at least occasionally, make a reservation to attend mass on the weekend, something that I always did pre-pandemic but have not done since March 2020. I may visit with friends indoors, which would be nice given that outdoor visits are tricky in the winter. Eventually, we may be able to travel again, although I’m afraid a trip to London will not be possible for some months.

The other piece of good vaccine news from our family is that my 95-year-old father, known here as Paco, has received his second shot of the Pfizer vaccine. In a couple of weeks, he should reach his maximum level of protection. This is particularly important because he is in an assisted living unit, which is considered a higher risk living situation. Presently, visiting is very restricted. T was able to visit him in person for half an hour today in a socially distanced visiting room; earlier this week, I was able to do a window visit, where we could see each other through a window while we spoke by phone. I am hoping that, as residents and staff all receive their vaccinations and as more members of families receive theirs, the state will relax visiting restrictions to allow masked visits into residents’ apartments. We haven’t been able to see Paco’s new place yet and would love to be able to help organize things for him.

In our little corner of upstate New York, we are chipping away at the pandemic, doing what we can to bring it under control. We know, though, that things in the country as a whole will be difficult throughout the winter. We have passed 414,000 deaths in the US with the expectation that we will reach half a million deaths in February. It’s staggering.

I’m hopeful that the Biden administration’s leadership and plans will help us get through this winter with the least amount of damage possible, although we have been warned that things will get worse before they get better. I hope each person will do what they can to help in the effort.

unmasked

Last week, I needed to bring one of our vehicles to a dealership for a recall. The one we usually use wasn’t certified to work on the electrical/battery system of our hybrid, so we made the appointment at another dealer in a neighboring county. We live near the county line, so it’s just a couple of towns to our west.

Tioga County is a rural county; Broome, where I live is a mix of rural, urban, and suburban, although Binghamton is a small city by most standards with a population of about 46,000. Broome County’s population is about 190,000 in 716 square miles; Tioga’s is 48,000 in 523 square miles.

Your geography trivia for the day!

So, I arrive at the service department of the dealership, wearing my mask. There is a sign on the door that face coverings are optional for customers but required for staff, which seemed a bit odd as New York State rules are to wear a mask whenever people are closer than six feet (2 meters). I was surprised to walk up to the service desk to find that there was no plexiglass barrier to protect the employee and he was not wearing a mask.

I tried to maintain distance as best I could. I checked in, walked past unmasked customers in line, and sat in the waiting area with unmasked customers while unmasked employees walked through several times. When the repair was complete, the employee doing checkout hastily put on a mask after the window that separated her desk from the hallway was opened.

The experience left me feeling not endangered, because I was masked and maintained social distance most of the time, but disrespected. While the business knew that its employees should be masked when in proximity to another employee or a customer, they were not complying.

As the designated shopper in our house, I’m used to visiting businesses which have implemented careful measures to keep their employees and customers as safe as possible. The result has been that our infection rate in the state has remained very low as we methodically re-open businesses and services. If I am ever in a similar situation that I have to use this car dealership, I’ll make arrangements to drop the car off the evening before so that I only need to go inside to do the final paperwork when it’s ready.

I hope that there won’t be any outbreaks from the disregard that I witnessed at the car dealership, which, presumably, was considered acceptable to others in that community. For me, it seemed a small taste of what I hear on the news from other states, that folks don’t believe that masks and distancing help prevent COVID infections or that masks infringe on their liberties or that COVID doesn’t exist, all of which contribute to the appalling rates of illness and death in the United States.

At least I know that no one there will have contracted COVID from me.

A quiet Fourth

Yesterday was celebrated as Independence Day in the United States. We usually just call it the Fourth of July, which it is, of course, everywhere in the world.

Celebrations this year were muted by the ongoing COVID catastrophe. While we still have the virus pretty well controlled where I live in the Northeast US, much of the rest of the country is experiencing a rapid spread which is threatening to overwhelm the health care system. Many states in the South and West are breaking their records for new cases daily and some are belatedly issuing mandatory use of masks in public and closing bars, indoor restaurants, and beaches, in hopes of reducing their infection rates.

It breaks my heart to see the level of suffering, knowing that much of it could have been avoided if leaders and the public understood and respected what the public health experts have been telling us. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Stay six feet away from people who don’t live in your household. Avoid gatherings. Stay at home except for essential work and errands.

The advice works! We proved it in New York State and other states in the Northeast. This is also how most of the other countries that have gotten their transmission rate to low levels did it.

On Independence Day, the United States commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which declares that all are equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Some of the people who won’t wear masks say doing so is an affront to their liberty, but liberty is not a license to abandon responsibility. I recently saw a political cartoon by Dave Whamond where a man was declaring his right to drive his car in the opposite direction on the highway. (It didn’t end well.) No person’s “liberty” should be allowed to interfere with someone else’s rights.

The Declaration of Independence ends, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” It was clear that the document was not about something so small as personal desire or preference or grievance.

We each bear a responsibility to others.

Don’t drive the wrong way down the highway.

Wear a mask.

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