As we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers continue to study the spread of the virus, the rise of variants and other keys to determining effective public health measures. At the same time, states and leaders are looking at pandemic protocols and safety measures. Many locations are rolling back some health and safety guidelines, especially with the decline in the recent omicron surge.
In Indiana, it's expected that the governor's emergency health order will expire March 4. With that, Monroe County's mask requirement will disappear, and Indiana University intends to make masks optional on its campuses.
"We've talked many times, especially during times with lower case counts, that each individual needs to take responsibility and make decisions about what level of risk is right for them and their family," IU Chief Health Officer Dr. Aaron Carroll said. "There will always be some risk, but to be able to evaluate what's going on in your community, in your family, in your situation and make decisions about your own behaviors is going to be the future of living with COVID-19."
Carroll said one more recent COVID-19 buzz phrase that speaks to this way of thinking is "one-way masking." But what does this mean? Carroll responds to common questions:
Question: What is one-way masking?
Answer: One-way masking focuses more on an individual wearing a mask to protect themselves even if others around you do not. We already see this in many areas of Indiana and across the country where there are not mask mandates. Some people will choose not to wear a mask, while others prefer to continue masking, perhaps even for an extended period of time.
Q: What kind of mask should I use?
A: As we've been saying since the beginning of the omicron surge, you should wear the best mask possible. If you're looking to minimize risk to yourself, an N95 or KN95 will offer you the most protection, as long as it fits well and it's worn as intended.
We're really at a point in the pandemic where we need to choose the level of risk we're each individually comfortable with. One-way masking is a great example of this. Some people will be more risk-tolerant, while others will seek a much lower level of potential risk and will continue wearing an N95 or similar mask in indoor, crowded spaces. We need to respect each other's choices in those situations.
Q: What does research say about the effectiveness of one-way masking?
A: If you're wearing an N95 mask that fits well, it filters out about 95 percent of airborne particles. If you're vaccinated and boosted, and wearing an N95, your risk of getting COVID-19 is low. Even better, it's extremely unlikely you'd get severely ill if you did catch the virus.
The CDC just released a study on the effectiveness of masks that showed people who always wore a mask in indoor public settings reduced their odds of testing positive for COVID-19.
We've used masking throughout the pandemic, and it's effective. When COVID was everywhere, and most of our cases were asymptomatic, it made sense to have everyone mask. Now, with data indicating we're coming quickly down from the omicron surge, and given the availability of high-quality masks, we're seeing shifts to more individual decision-making about health and safety precautions.
Q: What else can I do to protect myself?
A: Get vaccinated and boosted. If you're not vaccinated yet, go do it today. Walk-in options are available in many locations. Many of our campuses also have vaccine appointments available on campus. If you're not yet boosted, and it's been five months since you've had your first two doses of Pfizer or Moderna or two months since a shot of Johnson & Johnson, go get boostered. There's no reason to wait. These vaccines continue to work incredibly well, and with a booster on top of the initial series, we continue to see very low rates of severe disease and hospitalization.
If students voluntarily report getting boosted, they can even receive $20 in Crimson Cash. There's no reason to delay.
We're all well-seasoned on the various public health measures at our disposal, and we can turn those up and down as necessary. If case numbers go up, or we experience another surge, then we may see local or state government make further changes. We all have to do what we feel is best to protect ourselves and those we love, and we can all keep an eye on our state and local dashboards, be aware of what's happening in our communities, and adjust our behaviors accordingly.