Distrust Leads the Vaccinated to the Absurd Situation of Continuing To Wear Masks in the US

Social pressure to continue to use protective equipment is due to changes in CDC guidelines throughout the pandemic and the impossibility of knowing if someone is really vaccinated and protected.

As the United States begins to return to pre-pandemic normality, official guidelines regarding face mask usage are being relaxed. It should have been a moment of pure joy, but judging by reactions in the press and social media, the result was more confusion than relief.

It appears to be a crisis of confidence in authorities and institutions that comes from the beginning of the pandemic. In February 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised the public not to wear masks, and reversed the recommendation in April. During this period, scientists learned more about the transmission of COVID-19, and various countries and the World Health Organization changed their positions regarding mask usage. But the impression that remained is that the CDC was, at least in part, motivated by the need to preserve stocks of personal protective equipment for health care professionals. The measure likely had a positive effect on public health, but the effect on public confidence in the CDC was, predictably, negative.

With vaccination increasing but still far from herd immunity, the agency had gradually started to ease recommendations … until it suddenly announced that those who are vaccinated no longer need to wear masks. The vaccinated were cleared, even in indoor spaces, even without social distancing, with few exceptions. But there is no way of verifying who has been vaccinated or not. With low confidence in the CDC, not everyone believes that the vaccinated are sufficiently protected from contracting and transmitting the virus, even without a mask. It is speculated that the change may be, once again, due to indirect reasons. In this case, the clearing would be an incentive for those have not yet been vaccinated to get vaccinated, so that they can finally stop wearing a mask.

This has created an almost absurd situation, in which (at least according to reports in the press and social media) the most cautious among the vaccinated prefer to continue wearing masks and are suspicious of those who do not do the same. After all, they cannot be sure that the “unmasked” are actually vaccinated, not deniers, anti-vaccine or simply people who do not wish to reveal that they are still unvaccinated. Once this mistrust exists, or a sufficient number of people believe that it exists, the social pressure to continue wearing masks arises. Even vaccinated people who feel safe without masks say they intend to continue wearing them, out of consideration for those, vaccinated or not, who still do not feel safe sharing spaces with people not wearing masks.

Will we end up with a situation in which the vaccinated will be more likely to continue wearing masks than the unvaccinated, just the opposite of what the CDC recommends? It is unlikely — in a survey from The Economist, just 5% of respondents do not want to either get vaccinated or wear masks — but even the possibility is tragicomic.

It is worth emphasizing that the CDC only gives guidelines, not requirements. Governors, mayors and business owners can still decide to require mask usage. But, in a full reopening, the onus is on each establishment to balance the will of those who want to get rid of the mask and those who want to be cautious. Any decision will irritate one part of the public. Finally, it would not be terrible if the pandemic led the United States (and Brazil and the world) to adopt social norms in which masks are normal, at least for those who are sick or during flu season. But it would be preferable to reach these norms through the awareness of the need to protect others, rather than through general mistrust.

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