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Michelle Deal-Zimmerman: I may wear a mask forever | COMMENTARY

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa listens as Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott takes questions during a press conference at the War Memorial Building to announce the end of the indoor mask mandate on March 1.  February 24, 2022.

When I was less than 3 months old, pneumonia struck and the infant me landed in the hospital. It was a frightening time for my family, but I survived and have been fortunate not to relive that experience. Instead, I’ve been chased by bouts of bronchitis and the inherent knowledge that if I get even a simple cold, I’ll likely end up with a hacking cough that may not go away for weeks.

Should I get the flu, that means a trip to the doctor and weeks of recovery, even with a flu shot. Nonetheless, I’ve had influenza multiple times, most often after a vacation. Did that stop me from traveling? Absolutely not. Am I afraid of the flu? Not at all. I know what to do.

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But thanks to COVID-19, I’m now officially afraid.

So you can take off your mask, as now allowed in most places, but I’ll be keeping mine on for the foreseeable future.

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This is where I try to explain that while I have confidence in the Centers for Disease Control and other government health officials, I also understand — as should you — that public health is not individual health. What’s good for the population overall may be deadly to you. It’s not a surprise that suddenly we were told “one-way” masking works. In other words, protect yourself because pretty soon, no one else will.

So while it is probably good overall for children to not have to wear masks on a daily basis, it is not as good for teachers who spend all day in a classroom with 30 laughing, talking, sneezing — OK, even simply breathing — students. It’s also not good in light of a recent study that shows a lack of effectiveness against omicron infection by the Pfizer vaccines given to ages 5 to 11. And if you’re a teacher with any high-risk issue, including obesity, high blood pressure or diabetes, unmasking students may be hazardous to your individual health.

The same caution applies to grocery cashiers, retail workers, restaurant staff, bus drivers, social workers, health workers and so on. A study early on in the pandemic found that line cooks had the greatest risk of dying from COVID-19.

Public health officials will point to new therapeutics and free home testing as necessary tools to prevent people from dying of COVID. The Biden administration’s new “Test to Treat” policy would allow Americans to get a test at their local pharmacy and immediately receive antiviral pills, reducing the risk of death by some 90%. That is excellent.

What is not excellent is that the supply of those therapeutics is yet to be nailed down. In other words, we don’t have enough pills for everyone who might be infected with COVID. The administration has said it will secure up to 10 million courses of Pfizer’s very effective Paxlovid treatment, however it has officially contracted to purchase 835,000. That’s quite a bit short of goal. And in this case, it appears Pfizer’s ability to manufacture the drug is not the issue. Instead, it may be the U.S. government’s ability to pay for it. Last week, Congress nixed $15.6 billion in additional COVID aid from the latest spending bill, leaving health officials scrambling.

Even if and when we find the gold to pay for treatment, Paxlovid is not a silver bullet. It has received emergency approval but should not be used by people who have some of the very same preexisting conditions that make COVID-19 so deadly: high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Even if you feel great because you take medications to control those conditions, taking Paxlovid alongside these typical treatments will require care and consultation with your doctor. You can’t just pop it and go like a Z-Pak.

And then there’s long COVID, whatever that is — and it is something despite the doubts sown early on from some skeptical practitioners. Many of us know people who have lost their sense of smell completely or had it return in some weird version that only recognizes rotten eggs. Some of us have friends or family who have had episodes of pounding heart rates or explosive blood pressure months after recovering quickly from so-called “mild” COVID.

Last week, 20-something celebrity Hailey Bieber (wife to Justin) was hospitalized for a clot in her brain just three weeks after her husband postponed concerts because he tested positive for COVID. Just a coincidence? Studies show micro clots are sometimes leftover after a bout with the virus. There are also studies that show COVID affecting brain tissue in ways that some experts believe could lead to early onset Alzheimer’s or dementia in some patients.

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There are other consequences of our actions today that will not be known tomorrow or perhaps for several years. But despite evidence that advocates for caution, the public has moved on and so have public health officials, it seems, urging Americans to remove masks to “give people a break” and changing the way authorities calculate transmission risks.

Now it’s up to the individual and their risk tolerance. Mine is much lower than it used to be. So while you’re enjoying a maskless spring, I won’t be showing my face for a while.

Michelle Deal-Zimmerman is senior content editor for features and an advisory member of The Sun’s Editorial Board. Her column runs every fourth Wednesday. She can be reached at nzimmerman@baltsun.com.


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