As effective as the COVID-19 vaccines have been, the pandemic has taken an unfortunate turn in recent weeks. New cases and hospitalizations are no longer in decline across the United States, they’re on the upswing; the highly contagious delta variant accounts for most. Doses of the vaccines are plentiful, but the arms willing to accept them are not; vaccine hesitancy has become a serious obstacle to conquering the disease. And to top it off, it’s become increasingly clear that those masks people were so delighted to take off just weeks ago are coming back into fashion. This week’s guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that vaccinated people ought to wear masks indoors in areas of significant transmission proved a milestone — raising the hackles of right-wing politicos and the usual conspiracy theorists while reminding average Americans that the fight against the virus isn’t over yet.

The CDC has also advised that K-12 schools embrace universal masking among teachers, staff, visitors and students whether vaccinated or not, amid new data that show vaccinated people can still carry — and spread — large amounts of the virus. Kudos to systems like Baltimore County Public Schools for quickly adopting that standard for the fall, and Baltimore City Public School System for making the call before the CDC released its guidance. Given that children under age 12 aren’t yet eligible for vaccination, this precaution seems prudent.

Americans can quibble about some of the fine print as much as they like. President Joe Biden’s choice Thursday to mandate vaccination or regular testing, mask-wearing and social distancing for federal employees — a reversal of his previous position that vaccination ought to be voluntary — makes a lot of sense under these changing circumstances. This won’t be the first time that federal employees have been asked to model good behavior. Some private employers are following suit. We would encourage others to do so as well. The stakes are too high for Americans to be satisfied with a “you do you” approach to public health, anymore than we ought to accept traffic signals or speed limits as mere suggestions.

Yet resistance to mask wearing continues. At least nine states have banned local mask mandates. This is unconscionable. It’s one thing to question the CDC about data regarding how often vaccinated individuals have tested positive for the delta variant, it’s quite another to reject mask wearing out of hand as if the prospect of cloth or paper covering mouth and nose was an imposition beyond reason. The latest war of words between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy over the imposition of a mask mandate in the U.S. House of Representatives chamber is downright juvenile. It’s just a mask, Mr. McCarthy. Surely, the chamber’s dress code is more daunting.

The truth is that masks are a safe and effective means to reduce transmission of any respiratory virus including COVID-19. The better the mask, the more effective the barrier. That’s the reason double masking has sometimes been recommended, too. Do masks take the place of vaccines? No, they do not. But here’s the important point: They do no harm. They do not cause facial deformities, do not lead to cavities, do not increase the risk of COVID-19 (an especially mind-bending claim of detractors), do not cause pneumonia and do not lead to oxygen deficiency or breathing in too much carbon dioxide. What’s the actual downside to wearing a mask? We’ve yet to hear one (muffled voices, disguised facial expressions, “maskne”) that isn’t overwhelmingly offset by their lifesaving benefit.

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If Americans are serious about ending this pandemic, they ought to be ready, willing and eager to do their part. Getting vaccinated should be their highest priority, but wearing a face mask is a reasonable expectation as well. If anything, it should be considered a patriotic badge of honor signaling that the wearers are willing to do their small part for themselves, their families and friends, their neighbors, their community and their country.

©2021 Baltimore Sun.

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