Staying current with the ever-changing mask guidelines can feel like a full-time job, especially as state and local government requirements may not always line up with current CDC recommendations. While healthy adults are ready to shed masks altogether, seniors and their caregivers may be more reluctant to relax their COVID-19 protocols.
The decision of whether to mask or not to mask is a personal choice that should consider community spread, CDC recommendations and the input of your personal physicians. And because the Omicron surge is winding down, vaccinations are readily available, and COVID-19 is posing a lesser threat to hospitals in many regions of the United States, it may be time to reconsider when and where seniors should wear masks.
On Feb. 25, the CDC issued new COVID-19 guidelines based on personal risk factors, the level of disease spread and hospital resources on a county-by-county basis. The CDC’s COVID-19 Community Levels website provides easily accessible, up-to-date information on spread in your community or in the communities you or your loved one may plan to visit.
If the risk of COVID is low in your community, the CDC recommends wearing a mask based on your personal preference. In communities with medium spread and/or if you or your loved one is immunocompromised or at high risk for severe illness, the CDC recommends consulting your health care provider about wearing a mask. Masks are recommended (regardless of vaccination status) in communities with high community spread.
Furthermore, masks that offer higher protection (like an N95 or KN95 mask) are recommended when interacting with people who are at higher risk for severe illness or if you are at high risk for severe illness.
But what about seniors?
We know seniors are more likely to become very sick with COVID-19, so loosening their COVID precautions seems like a much bigger risk. The CDC acknowledges that seniors are at higher risk of a severe infection and recommends older adults talk to their health care provider about if they should wear a mask, or if they should ask others to wear a mask around them. The CDC and health care professionals urge seniors to take advantage of free COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters, but the issue of masking is largely up to the individual, especially as governmental mandates are relaxed.
Because the CDC’s guidelines remain somewhat vague, it’s a good idea to have a conversation about mask expectations with your loved one. If their current masks are bothersome, perhaps you could try a different style. Or maybe they feel comfortable with the low risk of spread outdoors but prefer to wear a mask inside any crowded indoor spaces. Communicating around expectations is a great way to set some ground rules, especially if community spread is low but not nonexistent.
So where do we go from here?
With ever-changing guidelines and varying levels of risk depending on community spread, it may be time to look to many Asian countries’ cultural acceptance of mask-wearing. For instance, Japan turned to masks when the population faced a major viral threat in 1968 during the H3N2 epidemic, in 2003 during the SARS outbreak and again in 2009 to protect against swine flu.
Mask-wearing in many countries became less dependent on a specific pandemic and is instead used to protect against contagious diseases, allergens and pollution. Many people realized that masks prevented sickness both in themselves and others and prevented loss of work due to illness.
Perhaps we can learn from Asian cultures and use masks not only to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but also to protect against particularly severe seasonal allergies and to prevent the spread of contagious diseases like the common cold, especially while visiting loved ones at a higher risk of severe illness. Either way, it’s worth saving the stockpile of masks, even if COVID-19 continues to decline.