"For now, not forever": We have to find a way to be done with masks, says CDC chief

Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times via AP, Pool

I want to be hopeful here since she has her priorities straight. But I can’t help noticing that she doesn’t say we will be done with masks eventually, only that she hopes we will.

And when she says, “They’re for now, they’re not forever,” the fine print in that promise is that it’s always “now.” Within the past few hours, the paper of record published a new story about the grim surge of cases Denmark and Norway are experiencing as Omicron explodes there. “It would be naïve to think the United States would be any different than Denmark,” said one microbiologist to the Times.

If COVID never recedes, with new variants blazing across the planet every three to six months, the case for wearing masks “now” becomes a case for wearing them forever. Watch, then read on.

Walensky’s comment about being done with masks is interesting to me mainly because it’s one of several data points recently showing how exhausted even liberals and their allies have become with the pandemic. Guess which right-wing outlet published this editorial over the weekend.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, it is clear that the coronavirus is not going to disappear anytime soon. Surges will happen, variants of concern will pop up and mitigation strategies will need to evolve. Yet too many Americans are still paralyzed with doubt and fear over each new uncertainty, as trust in government and other institutions to manage the virus ranges from shaky to nonexistent.

It is past time to ask ourselves, as another Covid winter begins, if we have to keep living like this: Anxious over the unknown, worried about large indoor gatherings, tense at every bit of virus news and frustrated and at times contemptuous of fellow Americans who have a dramatically different sense of acceptable risk…

It’s too soon to say how long the current surge will last, or how it might be shaped by the Omicron variant. But even amid that uncertainty, we should push for a more pragmatic path from our decision makers that will help us protect ourselves and live more normal lives, even as the virus continues to evolve.

National Review? No, that’s also the New York Times. The same New York Times whose star columnist, David Leonhardt, scolded the left a few days ago for not taking seriously the costs of endless restrictions. “[M]any Democrats, both voters and politicians, have been almost blasé about the costs of Covid precautions — the isolation, unhappiness, health damage, lost learning, inflation, public-transit disruptions and more,” Leonhardt wrote. “[I]t’s worth remembering that the point of those measures is to maximize people’s health and well-being. And maximizing health and well-being is not the same thing as minimizing Covid.”

The same day that column was published, Colorado’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, told local media that he won’t support any new mask mandates unless the pandemic picture deteriorates. “The [COVID] emergency is over” now that vaccines are ubiquitous, Polis said. “You don’t tell people to wear a jacket when they go out in winter and force them to [wear it].” People further left than Polis are tired of pandemic America too. Last week I noted that another Times columnist, Michelle Goldberg, had complained that her fully vaccinated children were being forced to eat lunch on the floor in silence in school to avoid transmission. Jill Filipovic, another left-wing commentator, echoed Goldberg’s unhappiness:

It’s a lot. After two years, it’s an awful lot for people to still have to bear. And it’s hurting Biden politically, as every day of disruption underscores to voters that his promise of getting America back to normal hasn’t been kept. Josh Kraushaar believes the president should go as far as delivering an optimistic speech calling on Americans to get vaxxed and resume their lives, which would fly in the face of his party’s COVID preferences but might boost his popularity.

A month ago that would have been an interesting idea. But now Omicron is upon us, and so:

Maybe the variant will be as mild as everyone hopes and won’t spread as far as everyone expects. Maybe it won’t. But it’s back to precautions, for “now.”

Walensky makes a fair point in the clip above, though, and it’s one I made myself recently. Whatever “endemic COVID” looks like, it surely doesn’t look like this. America is averaging 1,300 deaths per day from the disease; if that’s what we should expect even after the pandemic is deemed over and the virus circulates at a certain baseline level each year then yes, I’m afraid masks probably are forever. Jonathan Last made an arresting point in his newsletter today, that the universal and justified horror at what Kentucky experienced from the tornado this weekend is hard to square with the public’s fatalistic attitude towards the deaths which that state and the broader country experience every day from COVID.

When the tornados struck and killed a hundred people, Kentuckians opened their arms to their fellow citizens and were eager to step up and help.

COVID has killed 11,606 Kentuckians. And 40 percent of the state’s residents refuse to get a free shot that not only will radically increase their own chances of survival should they contract COVID, but also will prevent them from taking up scarce healthcare resources if they get sick and will cut down on the spread of the virus to their family and neighbors.

Maybe this is a case of 100 deaths being a tragedy, but 795,922 deaths being a statistic.

The death toll from the tornado is 74 and expected to rise, according to Kentucky’s governor. But that number would have to quadruple to rival a week’s worth of the toll from COVID in that state. This can’t be “endemic COVID.” And yet much of the country, for completely understandable psychological reasons, is prepared to pretend that it is anyway.

I’ll leave you with Fauci speculating about whether boosters will become an annual matter for COVID. Masks hopefully aren’t forever but boosters probably are.