Opinion | COVID-19 isn’t over, now it’s your problem to deal with

By Harsh Hiwase, Staff Columnist

I encountered an internal dilemma after Pitt’s relaxed mask rules took effect on March 28. The new guidelines state that students no longer have to wear masks inside campus buildings, except when in health care settings or on the campus shuttle.

A part of me was relieved that I didn’t have to wear a mask indoors anymore — a step in the right direction toward post-COVID normalcy. It felt liberating, as though we had finally surpassed the dreadful pandemic after it damaged our economy and took so many innocent lives. 

But the other part of me, like many other students on campus, had reservations about what the policy actually meant.

The new policy aligns with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which say it should be optional for people to wear masks indoors given high vaccination rates and low case numbers. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a press conference that “we need to give people a break from things like mask wearing when our levels are low,” yet stricter guidelines “should things get worse in the future.”

The guidelines warn us that COVID-19 is not exactly gone forever. The new policy is more of a shift in responsibility from institutions to individuals for the handling of the virus. Instead of having regulations and mandates in place that protect the public from infection, the onus is now on people to protect themselves — however they deem appropriate.

This initially seems daunting. After about three years of strict restrictions on masking up, travel and testing that protected the public, there are practically none now. Guidelines should match up to the state of the pandemic and give people a simplified overview of the situation. This is crucial as not everyone is an expert in infectious diseases. With the removal of the rules and regulations, we lose a broad perspective on how our community is dealing with the virus.

How can we be sure it’s safe to keep our masks off? The many metrics that are now available, such as daily infection rates, death rates, hospital resource usage and vaccination rates may give us a good indication, but even then it’s not enough. These metrics can be deceiving, as new variants of the virus become more infectious but may also show milder symptoms.

Many experts have criticized China’s use of case numbers in their zero-covid policy. The country’s strict stance on eliminating COVID-19 cases to absolutely zero has put substantial strain on the people and economy as they go in and out of lockdowns. Since March 28, Shanghai placed about 25 million people in lockdown, and deployed 2,000 military medical personnel to support testing centers after the emergence of the Omicron subvariant BA.2. Shanghai’s lockdown even caused food shortages in the city. After two weeks of lockdowns, China is finally easing restrictions again as case numbers go back down.

The approaches to the pandemic from the CDC and China vary greatly. The CDC’s measures seem too lenient, while China’s measures seem excessive. The best middle ground would be to rely on our own intuitions to discern whether it is safe to stay unmasked.

We have good reason to trust our intuitions because they are built on past experiences and offer us a fast resolution to problems when we lack information. The “gut feeling” of what is right or wrong is more than just an emotional response, but rather a form of information processing in our brains. Our brains use a “predictive processing framework” to compare past experiences to our current experience and anticipate an outcome from it.

In navigating how we should view the new mask policy and solving the dilemma of whether to mask up, we should discern for ourselves — and we most definitely have the ability to do so. More than two years of battling with the virus has given us enough experience with how to predict when things will get worse and how to keep safe. We can do so on our own accord, without regulations.

It comes down to following the same habits we had followed during the peak of the pandemic. These include maintaining a high degree of hygiene through the use of hand sanitizers, keeping socially distanced in settings with many people, keeping up to date with our COVID-19 vaccinations, masking up if we have flu-like symptoms and getting tested for COVID-19 when we are unwell.

If we remain cautious and follow our intuitions, the mask optional policy will be successful. We must recognize that we are not exempt from the consequences of the decisions we make, just because there are no regulations to prevent us from doing so. If someone wanted to catch COVID-19, it is still very possible to do so. The responsibility is on the public to discern that we should do the right things to prevent another outbreak that will send us back into a lockdown.

America has had a long-term struggle with abiding by COVID-19 regulations. People value their personal freedoms over public safety and have resisted wearing masks and getting vaccinated. This has slowed down progress in beating the pandemic. It’s important that the public internalizes that their individual efforts at this juncture will determine whether we make it out of the pandemic or fall back into regulations.

I’m optimistic that this policy will work. I think most people have a good intuition that will direct them in making decisions that keep everyone safe. I just hope that we don’t get carried away with the new freedom and forget that we are still dealing with this virus. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Harsh Hiwase writes about ethics and healthcare. Write to him at [email protected].