Editorial: Of masking and accepted risk
Late Wednesday, the state mandated its masking policy continue for all schools through Oct. 4. That extends the previous policy that had called for masking in schools through the first two weeks. The extension is sound: the Delta variant is extremely contagious and students under 12 are not yet vaccinated, so the risk of spreading the variant throughout the state’s schools is high. And we know that masking works to limit the spread of the virus.
Furthermore, what should be paramount this year is keeping students in a classroom environment. Socially, we know that is better for students and working parents. Academically, we also know it’s better for the students and teachers.
That said, let’s also note that the earlier news reports that the Delta variant poses significant health hazards to those who are vaccinated (those so-called “breakthrough cases”) has been overblown.
New York Times columnist David Leonhardt recently reported that the chance of a “breakthrough” case of Covid is about one in 5,000 among those who are vaccinated and living in states with lower vaccination rates (usually the South), and could be one in 10,000 for states in the Northeast, or even less in highly vaccinated Vermont. And even if a vaccinated person contracts the virus, Leonhardt reports, the danger is usually minimal. “It’s not clear how much we should be worrying about (these breakthrough cases),” he reports. “For the vaccinated, Covid resembles the flu and usually a mild one. Society does not ground to a halt over the flu.”
To expose the exaggerated fear of breakthrough cases, he cites a recent ABCNews/Washington Post poll in which “nearly half of all adults judged their risk of getting sick from the coronavirus as either moderate or high, even though 75% of adults have received at least one shot. In reality,” he continues, “the risks of getting any version of the virus remain small for the vaccinated, and the risks of getting badly sick remain minuscule. In Seattle on an average recent day, about one out of every one million vaccinated residents have been admitted to a hospital with Covid symptoms. That risk is so close to zero that the human mind can’t easily process it. My best attempt is to say that the Covid risks for most vaccinated people are of the same order of magnitude as risks that people unthinkingly accept every day, like riding in a vehicle.”
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be masking up inside in public spaces (for safety or for peace of mind), but it is to suggest that if you’re vaccinated and living in a highly vaccinated area, you can reasonably go about living life without undue fear. But don’t take my word for it. Read as much as you can about it; stay in touch with changes in the news; get a booster if and when it makes sense. Just don’t turtle under your covers and not come out until next summer. It’s not necessary, and the community will be better off if you’re an integral part of it.