by Kathleen Gadd
Ever since hospitals in the US and Canada dropped universal continuous masking, ever since the WHO declared the end of the emergency phase of the pandemic response, friends and acquaintances have noted that continuing to wear a mask to protect themselves and others seems to be met with more resistance.
Every week we'll send a note with masking affirmations to encourage folks to continue to take action to preserve their own health, and the health of others. This week is rambly - next week I'll be briefer!
I'll provide a couple of links of interest - about masks and respirators, and about why it's rational to still take steps to avoid infection.
Earlier this month, Matthew Oliver (P Eng), Mark Ungrin (PhD), and Joe Vipond (MD) published an opinion piece in Scientific American titled Masks Work. Distorting Science to Dispute the Evidence Doesn't.
It's a great overview. I've had the pleasure of speaking with all three authors, and they are among the kindest and wisest people I've ever gotten to meet. We're darn lucky to have people like them invested in caring about all of us. They are each working hard to make their own communities safer, and sharing their work with the world so we can all benefit.
The other piece that's been rattling around my brain again is one from November. I think its title is worth using as a mantra -"You May Be Early, but You're Not Wrong" by Jessica Wildfire in her OK Doomer Substack.
If you've been keeping up even halfheartedly with COVID news, the sentiment probably rings true for you. How often does something trickle into mainstream media and your first thought is "We knew this in 2020?" Going forward, more and more people will be acknowledging the risks of shared indoor air, and doing something about it. The fact that you continued to wear a mask in 2023 - as noteworthy as it may feel some days now, as contentious as it can be - won't be remarkable in a few years. It'll be matter-of-fact that rebreathing the air that came out of someone else's lungs is gross. So you wore a respirator for a few years while we all waited for the government to finally invest in clean indoor air to improve productivity, stop disease transmission, help the economy, reduce suffering. You had your own personal air cleaner. It attached to your face, cleaning the air at the point of need. You weren't wrong to take steps to keep SARS-CoV-2 out of your body. You were just early.
I know many people feel self-conscious now, or even targeted, when they mask in public. But given what various domains are learning about the hazards of SARS-CoV-2 and how it spreads, many people will be looking back at 2022 and 2023 with regret that they weren't more cautious. It will be obvious to many more people that this virus spreads through the air and that avoiding infection is a worthy pursuit.
If you need some encouragement to mask, try to treat it like you do with the other short-term sacrifices you make for long term gain. You're happy when you see your savings grow. You're happy when you do something new with more skill than you could the week before. You're proud when your kid masters something challenging. You enjoy the feeling of getting into fresh sheets, a freshly cleaned tub, eating a delicious meal that took a lot of prep. We often relish in successes and joys that took work and sacrifice to achieve. Managing to resist infection and re-infection when your government is making sure all environments are hostile to your short and long term health is sadly a new arena for this same kind of discipline and courage. Think about the things you were mulling over 5 years ago and ultimately didn't do - I still can't play the guitar. Where would I be today if I'd started back then? I lost my gains from the compound lifts I used to do - where would I be today if I'd kept them up?
The nice thing about masking in public is it doesn't really take me any extra time, unlike trying to motivate myself to learn a new instrument or to go down to the basement where both the spiders and the weights are. It's a quick habit, like buckling my seatbelt - except now when I unbuckle, I reach for the N95 and fit it securely to my face; bend the nose wire; check the seal.
Impatient. I'm impatient. I'm not willing to wait for NB premier and P Eng Blaine Higgs to accept what ASHRAE and the CDC and OSPE are saying - that COVID is airborne, other diseases are airborne too, and cleaning indoor air is essential. He's greedy, he's selfish, he has his own agenda - I'm not going to wait to breathe clean air only on Higgs' time.
He's busy making life hell for vulnerable people. He's not in a rush to use engineering solutions to provide clean indoor air. I wish he was, but wishing won't change reality. The reality is, every province and territory is going to have to make major investments in clean indoor air in order to preserve the health and productivity of their residents. And yet they clearly all want to delay, or they'd be doing it already. There are reasons why not one single province or territory has acknowledged that COVID is airborne; despite PHAC recognizing the role of aerosols in Nov 2021, despite Nature (Why the WHO took two years to say COVID is airborne), despite Clinical Infectious Diseases (COVID-19 and Airborne Transmission: Science Rejected, Lives Lost. Can Society Do Better?)
Don't forget, the NB Liberals want to update the Clean Air Act - one action you can take is to contact your MLA, and encourage your friends and family to do the same - urging your MLA to support updating the Clean Air Act when the opposition brings it up again. Here's the contact info and you may wish to express your support for Education policy 713 at the same time, which ensures a safe environment for all students by setting minimum requirements for inclusion of 2SLGBTQI+ students, families, and allies. You may also wish to let Horizon, Vitalite, the Department of Health, or any other leader in healthcare know that COVID is airborne and that patients and workers deserve to be protected.
Keep on being impatient. Reject being forced to rebreathe air that has come out of other people's lungs, with viruses from their bodies along for the ride, waiting for you to breathe them in. Most of us have access to a simple solution - cleaning the air at the point of need, by wearing a respirator. They work, and you're not wrong to take a step that works - you're not wrong to resist infection.
Many people don't really think COVID is around, because the government went from finding cases to trying not to find cases; from telling us about cases daily to making it as difficult as possible for us to find out how many cases - the ones they found despite trying really hard not to. Did you know that starting in mid-January, Horizon vastly reduced testing patients? And starting in April, the eligible public could no longer self-refer for PCR testing? Then in April and May they dropped the requirement to mask continuously in hospitals and long term care. They did all of this without ever telling anyone that COVID is airborne. They did this without warning even their own employees that 10% of infections result in long COVID. Without warning anyone that long COVID has been found more often in women than men. Everyone in this province is at risk of negative consequences of infection.
You can still see a weekly report of how many PCR tests and how many positives.
Many people don't realize how prevalent COVID still is in all of our communities, because the government including provincial Public Health has stopped talking about it. This is a disservice to us. Folks don't realize there is still a hazard present. The virus itself killed more NBers in 2022 than in previous years, but the approach from Public Health and GNB makes it seem inconsequential, rather than the 3rd leading cause of death in Canada. It's absolutely ridiculous that taxpayer money goes to a Public Health department that doesn't have the courage or permission to communicate accurately with the public about a new 3rd leading cause of death.
It is not safer to be unmasked in public right now compared to last year. There are fewer recently-boosted people now - while the vast majority of NBers got 2 vaccine doses, and many people got a booster, almost everyone's protection against infection via vaccine has waned. In fact, GNB has severely restricted who is eligible for a booster at the moment - so even for the ~20% of NBers who got the bivalent vaccine in the fall, many of them are not eligible for a spring booster.
The government likes to claim that we're in a different place now, because of "hybrid immunity" - but infection doesn't protect you sufficiently. The virus mutates, and quickly. The variants circulating now are different from the ones circulating in the fall. They can reinfect. Remember: about 13% of NBers have had a vaccine dose in the last 6 months. The people around you are not protected against infection. There is almost nothing stopping them from infecting you. COVID isn't receding; it's not going away. It's oscillating around a high fixed point - rising and falling, but never dropping below a certain significantly high prevalence. People are being regularly reinfected when they become susceptible again. While people aren't being hospitalized in as high of numbers for COVID pneumonia, COVID continues to harm us - leading to increased diabetes diagnoses, increased stroke incidence, increased cardiac problems, and more. Getting infected isn't good for you - it's bad for you, and it's rational to avoid infection. Wearing a respirator, one that fits you as well as possible, is a very effective way to protect against infection.
Thankfully over the next few months, you can also avoid indoor gatherings more easily. Take advantage of the warmer days and evenings and encourage folks around you to work and do leisure and social activities outdoors when possible. Yes, you can still catch COVID outdoors - so still avoided crowded places or being downwind from a crowd. But we may as well take advantage of the protective factor that comes with being outdoors.
In a recent COVID information chat, Dr. Tara Moriarty said that if you've been infected 0-1 times in the last year, your protections are working just about as well as we can expect given the situation. Keep it up - because the steps you're taking are working. When in doubt, mask up, meet outdoors, rapid test before meeting, and take other steps outlined at SeeYouSafer.org.
Next week I'll be brief. I hope this has helped in some way. It's a straightforward decision for me to mask - I don't want to be reinfected. The virus transmits predominantly by the airborne or inhalation route, so I protect my "inhalation route" with the best mask that I can while sharing air. I'm not heading down into the spidery basement to get back to lifting weights yet - but in 5 years when it's totally common knowledge that COVID is airborne, when our public buildings have better indoor air quality, I'll be able to look back at 2023 and know that I put the work in to protect myself from reinfections - and I tried as hard as I could to protect you too.
Wishing you the best and safest possible week.
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