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What the new CDC Covid-19 school guide says about bullying face mask wearers

Holy turn, Batman. Since early 2021, the U.S. has abandoned indoor face mask wearing and dropped many such requirements, as seen in the latest update on K-12 schools and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Early Care and Education ( ECE) program guidelines. The CDC now recommends that “Schools and ECE programs should Consider flexible, non-punitive policies and practices to support people who choose to wear masks, regardless of the level of the Covid-19 community.” It is not clear now whether the “consideration of flexible, non-punitive policies and practices ‘ referred to not punishing those who ‘choose to wear masks’ or not punishing those who harass people who ‘choose to wear masks’.

Lucky Tran, PhD, director of science communication and media relations at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, seemed to take it the earlier way, tweeting the following:

As you can see, Tran stated that “the CDC has fallen behind so much that it recommends that schools *consider not penalizing* people who wear masks to protect their communities.” If that’s it, what the CDC meant, then what’s next? Should they tell people that they should consider not punishing those who prefer to pee in the toilet than in the swimming pool?

Even though the CDC said it shouldn’t consider punishing people who make life difficult for those who wear face masks, the line is quite dark, as Aaron Miller, PhD, a clinical assistant professor of biomedical sciences at Marquette University, tweeted:

Did the CDC instead mean that people who harass or bully those wearing face masks shouldn’t be penalized? In any case, it doesn’t bode well for those worried about being bullied for wearing face masks. As you can see above, @Meidas_Laura’s response to Miller’s tweet lamented, “I’ve lost all faith in @CDCDirector. This government is doing so much, but their health ministers are failing them. My boys have been mocked every day for the past year for continuing to wear a mask. A way to encourage bullying.”

Although the CDC doesn’t seem to track the number of people who are taunted, harassed, and bullied for wearing face masks, such behaviors appear to be becoming more common. For example, as I covered for forbes, Last month Joe Rogan shared on his Spotify podcast that he bleeped stand-up comedian and actress Ali Wong because he was still wearing a face mask. And the following tweet includes a video by comedian Alex Stein in which Tess Owen, senior reporter at VICE News, is called a “loser” while pointing out that she’s the only one present at a Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC ) wearing a face mask:

Yes, wearing a face mask is not like blinding your face. It’s not some kind of fashion choice or statement. Its use has been supported by a growing number of scientific studies. For example, just look at the Evidence Review published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) on January 11, 2021, a summary of many of these studies and a study titled “Mask Wearing in Community Settings Reduces Transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” published in PNAS on May 31, 2022. Gosh what situation would be safer? One where anyone infected freely spits the virus into the air for everyone else to inhale, or one where at least something blocks virus-carrying respiratory droplets?

It is important to remember that someone can wear a face mask not only for personal protection but also to protect others. For example, here’s what Jonathan I. Levy, ScD and Professor and Chair of Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health, tweeted:

The latest CDC guidance states that “consistently and correctly wearing a well-fitting mask or respirator reduces the risk of spreading the virus that causes Covid-19.” And it recommends universal masking indoors “at high levels of Covid-19 community level” and “in healthcare facilities, including school nurses’ offices, regardless of the current Covid-19 community level”. Additionally, the CDC mentioned that “schools may need to require masking in settings such as classrooms or during activities to protect students with immune-compromising conditions or other conditions that increase their risk of contracting Covid-19, in accordance with applicable states.” , or local laws and regulations.”

Then why even mention the possibility of people being fined for wearing face masks or not encouraging the use of face masks? And why use the word “consider”? Taking to Twitter, @organichemusic feared such language would cast a negative light on wearing face masks:

Again, one has to ask why now when it comes to changing the CDC guidance. With the more transmissible BA.5 omicron subvariant of the spread of SARS-CoV-2, Covid-19 activity has remained high across much of the US. and 491 Covid-19-related deaths per day as of August 14, according to the New York Times. In addition, schools will soon be opened, which will further increase social mixing and possibly the spread of the virus. The weather is also getting cooler, which could further promote the spread of the virus. And what else will happen in the coming months? Oh, that’s right, something called midterm elections is going to happen. Could political leaders think more about what would help them and their political party members win re-election than what would best protect the public in the long run? If you haven’t been following what’s happening, simply wearing a face mask is highly politicized. Because the virus itself is very, very small and cannot be seen on the streets, face masks have become the most conspicuous sign that our society has not fully returned to its pre-pandemic times. And perhaps political leaders see the illusion of a “back to normal” as a way to get elected.

Remember that face masks not only protect those who wear the masks, but also everyone around the face mask wearers. The original intent of the face mask requirements was to help people protect each other by not only preventing the virus from getting into your nose and mouth, but also preventing the virus (if you are wearing it) from gets too far past your nose and mouth. Yet in about a year and a half, wearing face masks has moved from being a population-based intervention to being an individual choice, which would be like calling someone who smokes inside your face an individual choice. Turnabout might be fair game in some situations, but not when it comes to Covid-19 precautions backed by scientific evidence.

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