Biden: It's a "patriotic responsibility" for vaccinated people to keep wearing masks

This is silly and ill-informed twice over. First he implies that it’s safe for him, a vaccinated person, to go maskless outdoors only because he’s the president and there usually aren’t other people in his immediate vicinity. But that’s wrong. Even the CDC’s cautious new guidance allows someone who’s been immunized to attend “small” outdoor gatherings with a mixed crowd of vaccinated and unvaccinated people without a mask. There’s no rule that says a vaxxed person needs to take precautions just because some stranger is within arm’s length outside.

Second, he claims that if he and the NBC reporter were sitting closer together indoors then they would have masked up. Also wrong. The CDC said weeks ago that it’s okay for vaccinated people to hold small gatherings together indoors without masks. No distancing requirements involved.

The “patriotic responsibility” nonsense is half paranoia, half armchair sociology. An unvaxxed person might wear his mask when not required simply to err on the side of caution and provide a bit of extra risk reduction in case there are unvaccinated people nearby, the thinking goes. But if that’s the rule we’re following then we’re wearing masks forever. The population of unvaxxed Americans isn’t small, after all, and won’t be small anytime soon. The other reason to wear the mask, supposedly, is to set an example for the unvaccinated while case counts in the U.S. remain in the tens of thousands. If Biden’s still wearing his mask, we’re asked to believe, then the average joe who’s thinking of abandoning his own mask might stick with it awhile longer, until we’ve driven infections down to Israeli levels.

I have to say, though, in light of last night’s poll showing once again that the unvaccinated are getting back to normal faster than the vaccinated are, I’m impatient with the argument that Biden and other pols should unmask as a way to incentivize vaccination. Even though that theory is popular among certain experts:

“Everyone could have been in that room,” said Monica Gandhi, professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco [about Biden’s speech to Congress on Wednesday]. “If we’re all fully vaccinated, we could all be unmasked and distanced in that room.”…

“There is nothing that’s 100 percent safe,” said Leana Wen, a professor of health policy at George Washington University. “I think we need to be living with the concept of living with risk and reducing risk.”…

“We’ve got the CDC moving toward a culture of absolute risk intolerance,” [Marty] Makary said.

“As a physician, I can tell you, if you’re out of step with where people are and don’t have good answers to their very logical questions — such as don’t these restrictions contradict the messaging on vaccine safety — you lose credibility,” he said.

Okay, but give me any evidence to show that the unvaccinated are sitting at home right now watching to see how vaccinated people behave before deciding whether to get vaccinated themselves. All of the data I’ve seen runs the other way. Gallup’s poll in March showed anti-vaxxers were mere willing to drop precautions than the vaxxed were:

YouGov’s poll from a few weeks ago showed the same thing:

Last night CNN chimed in with numbers showing that “Among those who are not vaccinated and do not plan to get one, 87% say they’re comfortable or have already returned to their routines, compared with 63% among those who haven’t gotten vaccinated but plan to, and 58% among those who have received at least one dose of the vaccine.”

Plain and simple, people who are still unvaccinated and don’t plan to get their shots don’t appear to be waiting around until it’s “safe” to get back to normal. They’re doing it now. They’ve made peace with the risk of contracting COVID, for whatever reason. So there’s no good reason to believe that if members of Congress had flung off their masks during Biden’s speech as a testament to the power of vaccination, the unvaxxed audience watching would have thought, “Oh my, I’d like to be able to do that. I’d better get vaccinated after all.” The unvaccinated have already flung off their masks!

I suppose there’s a contingent of Americans who are truly undecided on whether to get immunized, with no firm plans to either get the jab or to avoid it, and who might still be susceptible to incentives. But American media is awash with pro-vax messaging, mainly focused on how dramatically one’s personal risk of serious illness from COVID declines after being vaccinated. How many unvaxxed people are marinating in that message every day but still can’t quite bring themselves to get motivated to get their shots until they see immunized members of Congress take their masks off? Can’t be many.

If anything, Biden should unmask more frequently to try to persuade those who have already been vaccinated that it’s safe to take more risks. The unvaccinated aren’t taking their cues on precautions from him; if they were, they would have gotten their shots by now. But people who’ve had their shots and are still cowering at home due to poor risk calculus might stand to benefit from a little leadership by example. If our geriatric president can show that he’s comfortable being around other vaxxed people in public, maybe the average joe who’s been immunized but remains anxious about returning to normal life will feel more comfortable too.