Some vaccinated people vow to keep wearing masks indefinitely -- despite new CDC guidance

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Two grim vignettes for you gathered from my morning reading. One:

Whenever Joe Glickman heads out for groceries, he places an N95 mask over his face and tugs a cloth mask on top of it. He then pulls on a pair of goggles.

He has used this safety protocol for the past 14 months. It did not change after he contracted the coronavirus in November. It did not budge when, earlier this month, he became fully vaccinated. And even though President Joe Biden said on Thursday that fully vaccinated people do not have to wear a mask, Glickman said he planned to stay the course.

In fact, he said, he plans to do his grocery run double-masked and goggled for at least the next five years.

Glickman has the excuse of being traumatized, as he says he still has strange symptoms six months on from his bout with COVID. It’s hard to fault a man for wanting to do everything he can to protect himself from reinfection, even though someone who’s already recovered from the disease *and* has been vaccinated must be among the lowest-risk people in the world.

And even though the many precautions he’s taking right now didn’t prevent him from being infected the first time.

As I say, he has an excuse, sort of. But what’s this guy’s excuse?

Rebecca Kee, another San Francisco resident, has seen how divisive the new guidance can be.

After the CDC said fully vaccinated people don’t need masks outside last week, she decided to walk barefaced in her neighborhood.

Then a man with two children, all masked, darted into the street to avoid her. When she told him there was new guidance, the man told Kee she was lying and he hoped her family would get sick and die.

I don’t know for a fact that that A-hole will be wearing a mask forever but he was outdoors at the time of this incident and in one of the safest cities in the country. (Two-thirds of San Francisco County has had its first dose and cases there are below three per 100,000 residents.) If he’s still this paranoid given how well the Bay Area is doing, it’s a cinch he’ll be masking for months if not years to come.

That’s one casualty of the CDC’s “no more masks” guidance last week, the people consumed by the threat from COVID who now need to adjust to a new, more liberal normal. Another casualty is the state and local bureaucrats who were sandbagged by the decision and are scrambling to update their guidance accordingly. A governor or mayor isn’t bound by law to follow the CDC’s recommendations, of course; we’ve already seen some officials say that they’ll keep their mandates in place awhile longer. But being on the wrong side of the CDC on a cultural flashpoint as hot as masks is an uncomfortable place. Forced to choose between following the agency’s lead and being accused of defying “The Science,” most officials will simply follow along. Even ones in blue states known for draconian restrictions:

Karen has a post coming up about this topic but it really can’t be stressed enough how surprised even the highest-ranking federal officials were by the CDC’s reversal on masking for vaccinated people last Thursday. How surprised? Uh, according to WaPo, Joe Biden didn’t find out about it until a few hours before Rochelle Walensky announced it to the world:

Despite White House chief of staff Ron Klain and Jeff Zients, the administration’s covid coordinator, regularly quizzing health officials on when vaccinated Americans could safely take off their masks, the CDC did not inform the White House about the updated guidance until late Wednesday — leaving some senior officials frustrated at how abruptly they were informed.

Zients was told of the impending policy by Walensky around 6 p.m. that night, according to a CDC official, while aides said others in the West Wing weren’t notified until around 9 p.m. Biden himself was not briefed until Thursday morning, officials said.

And when White House officials asked what they felt were basic questions — such as what the new guidance meant for businesses and children under 12 not yet eligible for vaccines — they felt CDC officials did not have sufficient answers. They also worried that the mixed messages over the course of the week would leave many Americans confused and key questions unanswered.

“Some Democratic governors were angered by the White House’s rollout,” WaPo alleges, “arguing the move effectively passed the buck to states and businesses to implement the new rules without any assistance.” That’s a fair cop — but on the other hand, if the CDC had spent days or weeks quietly discussing the policy change with the White House and governors before formally announcing it, it would have leaked and pandemic-era paranoia would have supplied all sorts of theories for why they were holding back.

Biden and Walensky also would have been accused by righties of timing the announcement for some opportune moment politically, to distract from a crisis. (In fact, Kevin McCarthy made that accusation anyway this past weekend.) I think the Biden White House takes the same approach to the CDC as it does to the DOJ, minimizing consultations to avoid the appearance of political influence after the Trump years. The downside of that approach is that the entire federal and state bureaucracy ends up being caught off-guard by the news that 100 million vaccinated people should now be free to go maskless everywhere, with local governments forced on the fly to figure out how to encourage the unvaccinated to keep taking precautions. Walensky did take care to say in her TV appearances yesterday that if you’re unvaxxed you should keep masking up, but good luck with that.

I’ll leave you with a few minutes from her CNN appearance, in which she stressed that local communities should continue to set rules commensurate with how high or low their vaccination rates are. That’s an important caveat to the big announcement last Thursday but one that’s gotten lost in the shuffle amid the celebrating, as Leana Wen pointed out. If Walensky wanted local communities to continue to shape local guidance, she should have eschewed the drama of a V-E-Day-style proclamation that the vaccinated can unmask. Now bureaucrats everywhere, including in states where vaccinations rates are low, are under pressure to waive restrictions. And even if they resist that pressure, residents may treat Walensky’s announcement as scientific approval to defy local restrictions that are still in place.