Opinion: Why I’m scared about mask mandate rollbacks

Until vaccines are available to every American, ending mask mandates in public places is irresponsible and immoral. Doing so will endanger the health of young children and further drive parents to make impossible choices — like whether to go to work or the grocery store and risk bringing home a virus that might harm their children. Giving privileged Americans license to act without regard for the health and well-being of the vulnerable will also take us far from our country’s original ethos, creating the kind of society that can no longer solve our collective problems.

While children under age 5 are least likely to get Covid-19, they have a higher death rate than older kids from the virus: They account for 15% of pediatric Covid cases but 35% of pediatric deaths, as Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, noted on Twitter. Already, more than 400 children under age 5 have died from this virus in the United States. I believe the death of a single child is unacceptable.
What’s more, many parents like me are trying to be extra cautious with our children since we don’t know whether there are significant long-term effects of the virus. (The CDC reported findings showing that children who have had Covid-19 seem more likely to get diabetes, and there’s mounting evidence that a substantial number of children are experiencing long Covid. Dr. Sindhu Mohandas, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, said her “best guess” based on limited data available is that long Covid affects 10% to 20% of children.)

My husband is an emergency medicine physician who has been treating Covid-19 patients since the start of this pandemic, so we know firsthand that this is not a virus we want our children to get. We’ve gone to great lengths to prevent them from being exposed. Early on, my husband quarantined in a different part of our home — missing part of our first daughter’s childhood — to protect us. It’s unthinkable that I might now face the prospect of bringing this virus home to my daughters simply because others who enjoy the privilege of vaccine eligibility can’t be bothered to put on masks.

The argument that people can still choose to wear masks to protect themselves belies an astonishing lack of understanding. Masks aren’t recommended for children under age 2, including one of my daughters, because they could suffocate wearing them. As for older kids and adults, as we saw with the explosively contagious Omicron variant, even if we wear masks ourselves, there is still a risk of being infected by others who are not wearing them.
Lifting mask mandates will therefore drive young children and their parents who don’t want to infect them — especially mothers who have been shouldering most of the fallout from this pandemic in our families — out of public spaces. In January, just 39,000 women entered the labor force, compared with over 1 million men, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
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It’s unconscionable to make things even harder for us.

This sense of gross individualism — the idea that people should do whatever makes them most comfortable, even if it endangers the health and social participation of others — will be toxic for our society. As a political scientist by training, I can’t help but point out that in “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote that what made America great was the spirit of the people — the way everyone banded together to solve collective problems.

Lifting mask mandates will, of course, have the opposite effect. It will enable the virus to spread and make it harder to contain the pandemic. And, more broadly, it will create a society rooted in selfishness, making it harder to resolve any problem — certainly not the kind of place where I want to raise my children.

Of course, politicians are likely making these decisions primarily with their public approval numbers and political futures in mind. But local school districts and private businesses can — and must — have the backbone to maintain mask mandates until vaccines are available to all.

While lifting mask mandates ignores the realities of Americans under age 5 and their parents — as well as other vulnerable people who face health conditions that make the virus potentially more dangerous for them — it does evince a mindset sometimes displayed by young children that if we pretend something doesn’t exist, it will simply disappear. This, unfortunately, isn’t true.

According to the CDC, last week, rates of community transmission were high in nearly 93% of US counties. We are already witnessing a high viral transmission rate at loggerheads with the individualistic urge to return to normal life: While the CDC is reconsidering mask guidance, the country’s surgeon general worried “will my child be OK?” after his own 4-year-old daughter contracted the virus.

It’s a question other parents like me are asking ourselves as we watch mask mandates disappear.

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