On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control updated mask guidelines—again. The CDC suggested that vaccinated Americans should wear masks while indoors—again—in areas of “substantial or high transmission.” Predictably, the new guidance led to a surge of Republican politicians vowing to do everything they can to keep the virus going and kill their own supporters—again.
On Thursday, we learned the reason for the CDC’s latest flip-flop in mask policy. An internal memo, obtained by The Washington Post, cautioned that “the war has changed,” and outlined the various ways the Delta variant of Covid-19 is more contagious as well as the likelihood that it can be spread by people who have already been vaccinated. Furthermore, the memo noted that the CDC’s own messaging, in its zeal to convince those hesitant about the vaccine to take the damn medicine, may have led to vaccine overconfidence. Apparently, “breakthrough illnesses”—where a person gets Covid-19, though doesn’t die, despite being vaccinated—are more common than we were previously led to believe, and not merely the anecdotal hard-luck cases that I’m sure everyone has heard about through friends or social media.
The new guidance won’t affect me very much, because my wife and I never stopped following the old guidance, even when the CDC did. When the agency announced on May 13 that vaccinated people could essentially strip naked in a restaurant and revel in the gifts of modern science, my wife and I reacted like Mad Max in Fury Road and said, “That’s bait.” We didn’t go to Red Lobster. We didn’t see Black Widow in a theater. The New York Mets are going to be in first place in August, but the 7-line subway might as well be a Jeff Bezos penis rocket when it comes to the likelihood of my taking a ride. Despite being fully vaccinated, we never stopped wearing masks indoors and never really started going indoors, among crowds, except when forced to by employers.
My family has remained cautious, not because we are particularly smart but because we’re well aware of how selfish other people are.
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The thing that a lot of people still don’t get about masks is that they predominantly protect other people. Getting the vaccine gives me a measure of safety, but wearing a mask keeps other people safe from whatever viral loads I may still be carrying. The mask is not for me; it’s for the person who has to sit next to me.
Because some people don’t understand this, and because many more people do understand this but straight-up don’t give a damn, it was always obvious that unvaccinated people would be mingling, maskless, indoors with those of us who were responsible. At no point did the vaccine promise absolute protection from transmitting the disease anyway, so it always felt like the most likely outcome of masklessness was that unvaccinated people would spread their germs to vaccinated people, who then, even if they didn’t get sick, would spread the virus back to unvaccinated people, lengthening the time everybody has to spend in this hellish cycle.
This week’s CDC rollback wasn’t just predictable; it was the inevitable result of sharing the country with Fox News, the Republican Party, and other bad-faith actors. Anybody who understood what Republicans are capable of when trying to create a wedge electoral issue understood that they should never take their mask off and should severely limit their time in shared indoor spaces.
Unfortunately, the CDC’s attempt to put the toothpaste back in the tube doesn’t even go as far as their own internal memo suggests we need to go. We should probably be looking, at a minimum, at another universal mask mandate, but it’s pretty clear there’s no political will for that, and it’s equally clear that the CDC is as concerned with public perception as a teenager lathering a gallon of acne medication on their face. But now, we’re not going to get the mask-reluctant to re-mask. We’re not going to get Fortune 500 companies to stop forcing people onto public transportation and into indoor offices. And we’re certainly not going to get the vaccine-hesitant to suddenly decide to help out the country and take the shot.
And in a few weeks, we’ll put another unvaccinated population right back into the spew of disease: our children.
My kids are unvaccinated because the vaccine has yet to be approved for people their age. Don’t get me wrong—when I’m allowed to, I will bathe them in vaccine like my name is Thetis, and I’ll let go of their heels while I’m at it. But that likely won’t happen before the start of school. Remote learning is pretty much universally over (and it wasn’t that great to begin with), so this fall my kids will have to trundle back indoors, masked but unprotected.
Kids still get sick from Covid-19. On Wednesday, Arkansas reported its highest-ever number of cases of hospitalized children. Kids do still seem to weather the Delta variant better than adults, but spend a night in the hospital with your child and tell me that Covid doesn’t affect the very young.
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The CDC has always suggested mask use for unvaccinated children indoors, and on Tuesday it said that children should be required to keep masks on in schools this fall. But—and I cannot emphasize this enough—it makes no goddamn sense to force the parents of those children to be around unmasked, unvaccinated MAGAs at work or other indoor locations. Unmasked people are putting other people’s children at risk, and the only way to protect our kids from them is to stay as far away from them as possible.
But the government has basically looked at me and all the other parents in my situation and said, “Good luck with all that.” Employers have looked at parents of small children and determined that their need to micromanage grown-ass adults outweighs parents’ need to keep their children safe. Public schools are still dithering about whether they will require vaccinations and mask use this fall (I send my kids to a private school that will require both, because that’s just the only thing that makes sense), but it’s unlikely that any school will require proof that parents are vaccinated before they send their unable-to-be-vaccinated urchins to spread the gospel of Covid-19 around elementary school.
This fall, just like last fall, the burden of the coronavirus will fall disproportionately on parents. It’s parents who will have to treat every sniffle or cough as a potential life-threatening disease; it’s parents who will be guessing at the efficacy of expensive “home” “rapid” Covid-19 tests; and it’s parents who will be trying to juggle “everything is back to normal” work schedules around periodic weeklong school quarantines because some other family just had to drag their kid to church, or Florida, or a church in Florida.
Kids are grimy little disease vectors in the best of times, so once they go back to school, you can count on their bringing a little Delta variant home to their vaccinated but not invincible parents. Some of those parents will be forced to go to work; some of those parents will not wear a mask while out, and we’ll get another entirely predictable wave of Covid cases. And our cycle of stupidity will continue.
In a society that cared about children, everybody would be masking up at least until the vaccine were available to all children. Safe, in-person childhood education is arguably the most important social institution that needs to “get back to normal.” It can’t be done effectively remotely (or at least it wasn’t). Educating our children through this crisis should be our No. 2 priority, behind only keeping people from dying from a preventable disease. Making it safe for kids to go to school is more important than going to church, or a ballgame, or dinner and a movie.
But to get there, we need people to care about other people. And that’s where this country always fails.
Last weekend, my best friend and his family were supposed to go on vacation. But their kid (who is the same age as my youngest) was exposed to Covid-19 at camp, a day and a half before their flight. The kid didn’t get the virus (according to the rapid test), but still, the exposure was there. According to all the weak, politically compromised guidelines, they were still allowed to travel, but they canceled their trip. Even though they were vaccinated, they knew that their kid, and thus the whole family, was at an increased risk of spreading Covid-19 if they traveled one measly day after a case was confirmed in their community. So, they didn’t. They did their little part to keep from spreading this awful illness to people they don’t even know. My friends, New York liberals to be sure, weren’t willing to go out there and risk giving some unvaccinated MAGA’s child Covid-19 just so they could have a trip.
Thing is, I don’t think my friend is special. Indeed, most parents I know would have done the same thing. It’s the people who won’t who are quite literally ruining it for everybody else. The thing that is keeping the disease going is not the Delta variant of Covid-19; it’s the asshole variant of humanity. And there’s no vaccine for that.
Elie MystalTwitterElie Mystal is The Nation’s justice correspondent and an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Type Media Center. His first book is the New York Times best-seller Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy's Guide to the Constitution. He can be followed @ElieNYC.