Guards Up? Masks Down? Who Knows What To Do? Who Calls the Shots?

The vaccines are 95 percent effective at preventing COVID infection…Vaccines wane over eight months…Vaccines wane over four months. Lift mask mandates…Implement mask mandates. Lift travel restrictions…Implement travel restrictions. Quarantine for 10 days…Quarantine for five days…Quarantine for five days, then avoid people for 10. If the media and government can’t make up their minds, why are we continuing to fall for their catastrophizing messages?  

The Centers for Disease Control announced in December that the quarantine time following a positive COVID test would be shortened from 10 to five days. Even while still sick, as long as symptoms dwindle, people can leave isolation without a rapid test. 

Rapid tests were recommended as a tool to detect a COVID case. However, now the accuracy of rapid tests is being called into question because of their lack of sensitivity. PCR tests are so sensitive that one can test positive for months after infection. So which advice do we follow? Wouldn’t rapid tests’ lack of sensitivity aid in detecting who is infectious, who can pass on the virus with higher viral loads, and who can leave isolation? 

As science evolves, new information must be considered. The media’s once declaratory statements like, “if you get the vaccine you won’t get COVID,” or “it’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” ignored that reality from the onset. Combined with public messaging to millions of non-scientists, all these mixed messages and conflicting advice leaves us unable to rely on anything but our own judgment. It’s like we’re left to our own devices. Rather than having a complete understanding of the actual data of this virus, we are left to call up friends and calculate who came down with it and when. Why don’t we know when Omicron can spread? How long does immunity last after contracting the virus? How long does immunity last after a vaccine? 

Here’s what we are seeing and hearing as it relates to Omicron: Omicron is highly transmissible and is great at causing breakthrough cases. Omicron is also far less dangerous than other variants to the unvaccinated and especially the vaccinated. COVID is now endemic and will never stop circulating in some form. It seems it’s going to be with us forever, but historically, viruses mutate and become less deadly over time. 

There have been deaths linked to the Omicron variant. The Wall Street Journal reports that while the Delta variant had a fatality rate of about 1.7 percent, the Omicron mortality rate is likely around 0.2 percent and that includes the unvaccinated. If true, this is a massive change in risk level that must be accounted for in our actions. The seasonal flu’s mortality rate is roughly 0.2 percent. The data for both COVID and the flu includes those over the age of 18, which increases mortality exponentially the older the patient. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t double masking every day of my life for the fear of getting the flu. Neither were your parents. Neither were your grandparents. Ironically, it was a risk we all were willing to take to live. Only when sick did people mask, and usually not in the Western Hemisphere. If we’re so cautious, then we might as well require both a COVID and flu test to return to school each week. 

Poly Prep is no exception to the unrelenting confusion. Our own administration seems to be confused about what CDC suggestions should be followed. “We have school every day,” is a mantra the Poly community prides itself on. Yet, it is apparent that our school does not mind sending dozens of kids home for small mask violations, though there are certainly major violations where students don’t wear their masks altogether. Being able to say that Poly is in-person seems to be more important to our school than actually keeping kids in the classroom. Both the change in Zuercher’s language regarding the consequences in the mask policy and, on top of that, not initially informing students, just adds to the confusion.   

Students have raised the idea that there is a double standard when it comes to COVID safety. For example, as kids waited at the front entrance to be sent home, Poly held an assembly with the whole Upper School, honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Chapel. 

“The Chapel is one of our largest spaces with the highest quality air filtration system… KN-95 masks will be available…Considering that audience members will be masked, not talking, and as distanced as possible we consider this a lower risk setting,” reasoned Director of Health and Well-being Sarah Zuercher in an email to the student body about the assembly. 

Even with all the advertised panic over Omicron, every row of the Chapel was filled, yet we held confidence that our HEPA filters would protect us. It might. It might not. That same uncertainty applies to types of masks and mask mandates. The school takes the safe route in regards to student violations of mask mandates, but not to large indoor gatherings. The CDC’s lack of clarity has, unavoidably, created a hypocritical COVID plan from Poly itself. How can we expect students to willingly follow the rules if Poly isn’t consistent with which rules to fervently obey each day? 

Perhaps giving up now forgets all previous sacrifices. But I’m not just giving up. It’s more than that I’ve lived through enough COVID to replace my fear of impending doom with fatigue, frustration, and boredom. We could just throw off all our masks based on the data that the likelihood of dying from Omicron is very low, but we shouldn’t, as research is constantly in flux and filled with mixed messages. At the same time, given the constant changes, we should live more “normally.” If we can’t keep up with the science, why bother wasting time? Rationality above all. 

The emergent alerts are counterproductive. Constantly modifying guidelines dull reactions, and people relax. These changing guidelines—and the lack of trust they create—only fuel the one thing we know doesn’t help: the unvaccinated remaining unvaccinated. 

Science says all you really need to know, at least right this very second. There’s too much hype. For now, just get your three shots and wear your mask in public indoor spaces. After that, there’s nothing really to do, and there may never be anything more to do.