More and more experts say it's time to get out of emergency mode and learn to live with COVID-19. And for many, a big part of that means dropping state and local mask mandates where COVID community levels are low or declining.
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But while the idea of not having to fumble with a face covering might sound nice in theory, in practice, venturing into a sea of maskless faces can be a little unnerving.
"For so long, we've been told that masks are the way to stay safe," says Alissa Jerud, PhD, assistant clinical professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and host of the Anxiety Savvy podcast.
After two years of being in the mindset that masks = protection, the dropping of mandates can trigger discomfort or anxiety, especially if you or someone at home is at higher risk for complications or is too young to be vaccinated. Plus, we've seen cases surge when restrictions have been eased in the past. Who's to say that won't happen again this time?
As we've learned over the course of the pandemic, we can't fully control the virus or how others choose to respond to it. But you can control how you cope with your anxiety around lifting restrictions — and continue to take steps to protect yourself and your loved ones.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
1. Know That Many Health Experts Are On Board
First, it's worth keeping in mind that the decision to drop mask mandates didn't come out of nowhere. Instead, it's based on how the virus is now affecting communities as a whole and the tools we have to prevent widespread transmission and severe disease.
"The omicron surge is receding, with all key metrics — community transmission level, hospitalizations, deaths and percent positivity — decreasing across the nation, and access to key mitigation resources like masks, testing, and therapeutics is much more widely available," says Syra Madad, DHSc, MSc, MCP, infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the NYC Health + Hospitals. "There's also more immunity in the overall population."
These factors have led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and many public health experts to agree that masks don't have to be a must right now. "It's an appropriate time to be lifting mask mandates in many parts of the U.S.," Dr. Madad says.
While that doesn't mean you should necessarily throw all caution to the wind, "the shift from community-wide protective measures has now transitioned over to the individual level."
2. Keep Wearing Your Mask, if You'd Like To
Masks may no longer be required in most public spaces. But that doesn't mean you have to stop wearing yours if you feel safer with it on. Even if you're the only one in the supermarket or coffee shop with a face covering, "one-way masking is still highly protective," Dr. Madad says.
The key is wearing the right mask. N95 masks offer significantly more protection than other types of face coverings, Dr. Madad notes. When properly worn, they can reduce your chance for getting sick by as much as 90 percent, according to an October 2020 study in mSphere. (And in most cases, it's perfectly fine to reuse your N95 mask several times.)
3. Know That Vaccines and Boosters Offer Valuable Protection
Yes, even people who are vaccinated and boosted can catch COVID. But it's crucial to keep in mind that if you're fully immunized, you're worlds more protected than you were back in 2020.
"COVID-19 vaccines continue to decrease one's chance of getting infected in the first place, and significantly reduce your chances of getting seriously ill and dying," Dr. Madad says.
And if you're not yet fully vaccinated and boosted (but are eligible to be), catch up on your shots ASAP. "The best way to protect yourself from getting infected and suffering from any severe outcomes from COVID is to be up to date with your COVID-19 vaccination," recommends Dr. Madad.
4. Acknowledge Your Fears
Trying to shut down COVID worries (or any worries) isn't all that effective. "Reassuring yourself that you're unlikely to get sick or that it won't be that bad, it might reduce your anxiety temporarily. But the anxiety will just come back with a scarier thought," Jerud says.
Instead of trying to convince yourself to chill out, acknowledge that, yes, your feared outcome could actually happen. This might seem counterintuitive — like it might just make you more anxious. "But when you allow those thoughts in and tolerate them, you then become more comfortable with them," explains Jerud.
5. Decide What You Can Do
Once you've accepted the possibility that you or a loved one could get sick (and even seriously so), take some time to think about how you'll manage those risks now that more people are going maskless. "You should decide what steps you're going to take to keep your family safe but not go above and beyond that, aiming to live in a way that meshes with your values," Jerud says.
This will look different for different people and families, of course. If you have a child who isn't yet old enough to be vaccinated, for instance, and previously felt OK about going to an indoor play space or museum when everyone was masked, you might opt to go to the space during off times when it's not so crowded, while continuing to mask up.
6. Take Baby Steps
Remember, too, that just because masks are coming off doesn't mean you need to dive back in to pre-COVID life all at once.
"It might seem too scary to go into a very crowded indoor venue unmasked right now. But try practicing one thing you can do, like going to the grocery store when it's not super crowded," Jerud says.
Give yourself time to get comfortable doing that, then try moving on to another activity.
7. Expect Some Mental Pushback, but Don't Let It Take Over
Already decided that you felt OK about going to the supermarket or eating indoors, but then start to sweat when you actually arrive? Remind yourself that you knew this might be hard, but stick with the plan anyway.
"When you avoid situations, you reinforce the idea that you can't tolerate it," Jerud says. "Over time, you'll build those muscles to tolerate distress and uncertainty, and your anxiety will decrease."
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