It’s time to ditch the COVID masks in San Francisco

Here’s an unpopular idea.

It is time for San Francisco to ditch the COVID masks.

Or, at the very least, make them optional.

We will now pause while advocates throw their hands in the air and wonder if we’ve lost our mind.

And I get it. Masks have become a safety net. We put them on because it feels prudent and secure. And also because of peer pressure.

And it isn’t that masks were never a good idea. But at this point we’re letting the over-the-top worries cloud our thinking.

We’re already headed in that direction. Mayor London Breed just declared that masks are no longer required in offices and gyms. Next week, the state is expected to drop the mask mandates indoors.

Which is pretty much in line with what we’ve been doing. We still wear them to dine indoors, but honestly, once seated and eating, most people don’t put a mask on again until it is time to get up and leave. Or to go to the restroom.

This is all dependent on everyone being fully vaccinated of course. But now vaccines are readily available. And San Franciscans are taking advantage of the supply. Recent data shows 82% of local residents are fully vaccinated.

And it was only this summer that Centers for Disease Control director Rochelle Walesnky said, “Fully vaccinated people are protected from severe illness” and do not have to wear a mask.

Now, you will correctly point out that the CDC then reversed itself – the agency has an unfortunate tendency to do that – because of concern about COVID variants. But now that those are waning, we’re back to where we were this summer and Walesnky’s original advice.

Because the fact remains, as we have heard over and over, that those who are most at risk are the unvaccinated. They are, Walesnky has said, 14 times more likely to die than those who are not.

Those deniers – who are idiots – are definitely at risk for serious consequences. But that’s their choice. People shouldn’t smoke either, but many do.

It brings us back to: “I have to wear a mask because you are too stupid to get vaccinated.”

But it was this Matt Yglesias newsletter that really got me thinking about this.

His point is that dropping the mask has to happen at some point. Because we’re being told that COVID is never going away. It will remain a virus in our everyday lives from now on.

If that’s true, he says, we should go back to the way things used to be. Meaning there were times when we would get sick, maybe catch a flu bug and we’d take a few days off work, get some rest and then go on with our lives.

The masks, Yglesias says, are only reinforcing the idea that there is no end in sight. There is one, once we accept that humans live in an environment where viruses often infect us.

And yes, that includes telling school children they don’t have to wear masks. A group of doctors, including UCSF’s Dr. Jeanne Noble, a COVID expert, sent an open letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom last week, asking the state to end the most restrictive COVID protocols in schools.

The letter, which was signed by doctors who are experts in the field – including a surgeon and bioengineer, an epidemiologist and a pediatrician – recommends making masking “optional” for school children indoors. It also recommends ending “mindless” testing of asymptomatic individuals, which they say only exacerbates staffing shortages.

The “restrictive policies,” the doctors said, “have long lost their justification as necessary for prevention of serious illness and death.”

Sharing this newsletter is a snap. Just click this button and choose the recipient. It’s so easy it makes falling off a log seem complicated.

And, despite widespread fears of young, unvaccinated children getting deathly ill, studies have shown their risk is extremely low.

On the flip side, there is ample evidence of the shocking toll that keeping kids out of school has taken. The CDC, for instance, reported that suicide attempts among adolescents increased 31% last fall compared to 2019.

The loss of learning is obvious, but the report also details clear trends of depression, isolation, bullying, violence and disruptive behavior.

So if the doctors support taking off the masks, and the social benefits of returning to school in relative normality are clear, what’s holding us up?

Well, part of it is, we did a great job of getting everyone concerned about the pandemic.

People were scared. And they should have been scared. But now that we are in a much safer place, it is proving very difficult to roll the fear back.

As Yglesias says, at this point the most vigorous COVID prevention advocates are now the progressive or most liberal. They are the ones who are demanding constant testing and strict masking.

And there is nothing wrong with wanting to be safe. But the debate has become so political that those who suggest opening things up are branded as dangerous, right wing COVID deniers.

To which we say again, read that letter from the doctors. Or check out the petition that accompanies it. It already has over 30,000 signatures.

We’re left with the question of “if not now, when?”

Are we going to insist that masks are the real normal, forever? Are we waiting for the medical experts to declare an all clear?

As columnist Eric Ting points out, that may be a long wait. The CDC, for instance, is so cautious that it also recommends against eating cookie dough or medium rare steaks.

And finally, although it pains me to say so, those of us in the media have played a part in fueling the fear. If Facebook has taught us anything, it is that there is nothing like bad news to generate internet clicks.

First there were stories about “skyrocketing” COVID cases. But now we’ve learned that simply testing positive does not mean serious illness.

So we began to use hospitalizations as a benchmark. But as Dr. Noble pointed out, nearly half of those hospitalized at UCSF were in the ER for something else and then were tested and found to have COVID.

At the end of the day, the real test of how dangerous and widespread the virus is now are the number of deaths. And deaths are declining.

At this point COVID is no longer a mystery. If you are fully vaxxed, evidence says you may be infected, but the symptoms will almost certainly be minor. If you refuse the shot, you’re running a foolish risk.

But the rest of us shouldn’t have to spend our lives in a mask to protect unvaccinated people. And that includes children in schools, even if it makes parents and teachers nervous.

That’s the reality. As New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said recently:

“We’re not going to manage this to zero. We have to learn how to live with this.”

And it begins with dropping the mask. . . as scary as that sounds.

Contact CW Nevius at cwnevius@gmail.com. Twitter: @cwnevius

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