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For now, keeping a mask on indoors isn’t such a bad idea

By Patrick Murray

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed on NJ.com on May 21, 2021.

Follow the science. That’s the mantra. Recent reports on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, particularly the mRNA ones, prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to loosen its advice on wearing a mask. Gov. Phil Murphy is getting grief for not immediately jumping on this new guidance.

The CDC, and advocates of lifting mask mandates, point to a recent real-world study showing that certain vaccines are 94% effective at preventing illness from COVID-19. Following that science, they say it is safe for vaccinated people to take off their masks around other vaccinated people. However, epidemiologists continue to punt on pinpointing the likelihood that a vaccinated person could become infected without showing symptoms and potentially transmit that infection to unvaccinated people. That is why an indoor mask mandate should still be on the table.

On top of this, the CDC’s recommendations seem to ignore, or at least give short shrift to, another set of sciences altogether — the social sciences. In other words, we need to take into account typical human behavior and how this guidance will be interpreted and acted upon by real people.

When the pandemic first hit last year, we were initially told that it really only affected older people and those with preexisting health conditions. It soon became clear, of course, that we were all at risk of getting the virus. Mask-wearing became mandatory in the state, not only to protect oneself but to protect others. However, not everyone saw it that way. To a sizable minority, the mask mandate was a partisan dictate that infringed on one’s “freedom” rather than an opportunity to pull together for the sake of one’s community.

As with everything in society today, COVID-19 restrictions were viewed first and foremost through a narrow partisan lens. This did not surprise those of us who have been engaged in the study of public attitudes and behaviors.

Take the issue of differing vaccination rates. The public opinion data has pretty consistently pointed to three basic groups in the population — those who are eager to get the vaccine, those who are hesitant and those who are opposed. In New Jersey, the hesitant group makes up about 14% of the adult population and the opposed group makes up another 14%, according to a recent Monmouth University Poll.

Those in the hesitant group want reassurances that the vaccine is safe or they lack easy access to get the vaccine. These two factors tend to go hand in hand. For example, vaccination rates in urban areas are incredibly low. These residents are among the most hesitant because they do not see many of their neighbors and community leaders getting the vaccine, in part because vaccine sites are not within easy reach.

The new CDC guidance is supposed to encourage more vaccine uptake, according to a brief published last month. They frame loosening mask restrictions as an incentive to get vaccinated. This may be true on the margins, but on the whole, this incentive won’t increase acceptance of vaccines in areas where access is the dominant roadblock.

More importantly, the CDC doesn’t provide any real evidence to support its assertion that loosening restrictions for the vaccinated will act as an incentive for the unvaxxed. Where’s the science they are following? Because here’s the problem: existing social science data suggests those in the COVID vaccine opposition camp cannot be incentivized. And in fact, the psychometric data suggests that folks in this group, because of a belief system that casts themselves as pitted against the rest of society, will use the lifting of mask requirements for vaccinated people as cover to go maskless themselves.

In other words, once the mask requirements are lifted, the only people you are likely to see wearing masks are vaccinated people who are worried about the relatively low, but still very real chance, of becoming infected with the coronavirus from unmasked, unvaccinated people. Their concerns are not just for themselves, but for others. And that is because the CDC still hasn’t been completely clear on the extent that vaccinated people can transmit the virus to the unvaxxed, especially children.

Fortunately, here in New Jersey, outright opposition to the vaccine is lower than it is in the nation as a whole. That means achieving some level of herd immunity — a standard on which the science is not clear, by the way — is more likely to happen here than in other states. But it will take a greater effort to reach the vaccine hesitant than offering a free beer or dinner with the governor to make it so.

In the end, maybe having an indoor mask mandate for just a little bit longer isn’t such a bad thing if it may help keep another surge at bay when we are so close to getting to the other end of the tunnel. At the very least, it’s the neighborly thing to do.