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With cases of COVID-19 continuing to fall, communities across the country are peeling back pandemic restrictions, and as a result, many Americans are ditching their masks. There are still a few places where you’re all but guaranteed to see them — on airplanes, in the subway and in many health care settings, for instance — but by and large, once-ubiquitous face coverings are becoming less so.
New guidelines introduced in February from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that’s okay, at least for the majority of U.S. counties that light up green on a map on the CDC’s website that takes into account hospitalizations, hospital capacity and COVID-19 cases. But older adults might want to think twice before heading out the door without their N95s.
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“All adults, and especially older adults and medically vulnerable people, absolutely have to remain vigilant,” says Nicole Iovine, M.D., an infectious disease physician and chief hospital epidemiologist at UF Health in Gainesville, Florida. Adults 50 and older account for more than 90 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. and about 70 percent of hospitalizations. Despite recent improvements in both metrics, Iovine cautions, “This pandemic is still going on, and there’s no reason that there won’t be another surge.”
Cases are once again rising in Europe, most likely due to the spread of omicron’s sibling variant, BA.2, and experts say these trends could foreshadow a similar pattern at home. In the U.S., the BA.2 subvariant, which is more transmissible than omicron but not thought to be more severe, is now responsible for nearly a quarter of new COVID-19 cases. A few weeks ago, it was to blame for about 7 percent of infections. What’s more, wastewater surveillance is registering higher levels of the virus, which could indicate that infections are on the rise.
Older Americans shouldn’t isolate themselves, but they “cannot completely let their guard down and fall back to what we consider normal behavior,” adds Rama Thyagarajan, M.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School. That may work for younger folks, who are less likely to get severely ill from COVID-19, she explains, “but it does not work for seniors,” who are more susceptible to COVID-19 infection and severe disease.
All the experts interviewed by AARP agree: Grocery stores, theaters, hair salons and other public indoor venues are safer with a mask. Several studies, including one published by the CDC in February, show that masks help control the spread of the disease. Researchers found that people who wore an N95 in public settings were 83 percent less likely to test positive for COVID-19 than those who wore no mask.
There may be times when it’s okay to go without one, but that hinges on each individual’s situation and risk tolerance.