Enough of the outdoor masking

No, Joe, you don’t need two vaccine doses to take your mask off outside.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics Science & Tech UK

US president Joe Biden relayed an announcement from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) yesterday: ‘Because of the extraordinary progress we’ve made in the fight against Covid-19… If you are fully vaccinated – and if you are outdoors and not in a large crowd – you no longer need to wear a mask.’

I’m sure this will be a great relief to many people, knowing that they can get outside, peel that mask off and enjoy the breeze on their faces. Other people might be wondering why the hell the CDC was recommending masks outdoors in the first place.

Whether to wear masks or not has become something of a culture-war battleground during the pandemic. For some, wearing masks proves you are a caring person who listens to The Science and wants to do everything to stop the spread of disease. For others, masks are ‘face nappies’ that prove that the wearer is a sap, someone happy to bow down to an authoritarian state. Neither position seems particularly helpful.

I can see a benefit to wearing masks where there is close contact between people that is unavoidable. It seems sensible, for example, for hairdressers, dentists and many other workers to wear masks. Whether masks have a huge benefit more generally seems questionable. Staff at checkouts in supermarkets, for example, are now behind perspex. I suspect that’s better protection than a bit of cloth. While masks cut down the droplets that we all produce when we cough and sneeze, their ability to block aerosols – microscopic particles of virus-containing gunk that are small enough to float in the air and remain infectious for up to three hours – is likely to be more limited. It is certainly the subject of intense debate among scientists.

Whatever your views on masks, and whatever we glean about their effectiveness in the long run, another protective measure seems much more important: ventilation. The virus spreads best with close contact in enclosed spaces. The more that air circulates, the more those aerosols are removed, the lower the chance of transmission. Opening windows and doors when meeting indoors seems likely to be more effective at reducing the spread of the virus than wearing face masks when we have a reasonable distance between us.

Which brings us to the great outdoors. Various estimates suggest that the risk of transmission outdoors is much lower than indoors. One review put the risk of indoor transmission as almost 19 times higher than outdoor transmission. Moreover, any transmission that has occurred seems likely to be in situations where there is sustained close contact. When we are just walking around, exercising or meeting people where there is any kind of breeze at all, masks seem irrelevant. For example, despite much hand-wringing about the risks of large demonstrations over the past year or so, there is little evidence of any spikes in infection as a result.

No wonder the UK government has never mandated masks outdoors. Masks are required in most indoor, public situations, like shops and transport. But not, so far, outdoors. Earlier this year, the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) floated the idea of mandating masks in more situations: ‘Consideration should be given to using face coverings in a wider range of settings where people could be asymptomatic and may be in close proximity. This may include outdoor spaces where it is difficult to maintain distance and people may be close together for extended periods (medium confidence).’ So, SAGE thinks that wearing masks in crowded, outdoor places might be useful.

It is bizarre that the CDC even recommended wearing masks outdoors, never mind that states have been influenced by this recommendation to make them mandatory. It is even worse that Biden thinks it is some kind of breakthrough for personal freedom that after two doses of vaccine you are permitted to not wear a mask outdoors.

A paper by a team from Public Health England and University College London published today suggests vaccination provides significant protection against transmission indoors. One dose of the Pfizer vaccine appeared to cut transmission by 49 per cent between household contacts and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine cut it by 38 per cent. There are few situations in which contact would be more sustained and close than if you share a home with someone. A second dose would surely cut the transmission risk even further.

According to Our World in Data, 42 per cent of Americans have had at least one dose of vaccine and 29 per cent have had both. Deaths have fallen from over 5,000 per day in February to less than 800 per day. Any need for emergency measures like mask mandates (indoors or outdoors) should soon be over, thanks to vaccination. The absolute risk of infection is now low and the people most at risk of serious disease have largely been protected by vaccination. (Of course, everyone should be free to continue to wear masks if they choose.)

Yet the tone of Biden’s announcement is that these measures will carry on long past the time when there is no longer an emergency and society should be returning to something like normality. Of course, this pandemic has bounced back before and we should be watchful. But to assume that even the mildest relaxation of measures should wait on the majority of the population having two doses of vaccine reflects excessive caution and leaves citizens stuck waiting for permission to get on with their lives. Enough already.

Rob Lyons is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty.

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