Q&A: To mask, or not to mask?

Health official weighs in on CDC, MDHHS new masking guidelines

Close-up of a woman holding a KN95 face mask.

Close-up of a woman holding a KN95 face mask.

Grace Cary/Getty Images

LANSING — The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recently announced that it would be rescinding its masking advisory. The following week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it would be updating the way it calculates community transmission levels, moving 70% of the country into a low or moderate level.

To help make sense of the new changes, the Pioneer reached out to Dr. Jennifer Morse, medical director at Central Michigan District Health Department, Mid Michigan District Health Department, District Health Department No. 10. Answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Question: The CDC and MDHHS both have revised their COVID-19 guidelines/advisories. Does that mean the pandemic is over? If no, what will it take before the pandemic becomes an endemic? 

Dr. Morse: COVID-19 is still not at a consistent rate throughout our population yet, so it is not at an endemic state. We are still in a pandemic, which is a spread of disease that spreads across countries or continents. We hope it will become like other coronaviruses, which are endemic, or the flu, which is endemic and causes yearly seasonal epidemics each year. An epidemic is when an illness or disease spreads quickly in a particular area or population.

Most of Michigan has been in the CDC’s highest level of community transmission for quite a while. How is the new system different than the old system in determining the levels? What are the thresholds of the new levels?

The difference now is the primary focus is on the capacity of our hospital systems, rather than just on the rates of disease. Our biggest concerns are severe illness which tend to lead to hospitalization and death and the capacity of our health care system to continue to function and care for both COVID and non-COVID patients. Therefore, in a time when we have more immunity in our population and a need to find better ways to live with this virus, making decisions based on the amount of severe illness and the status of our hospital systems makes sense.

There’s been talk in the news about reaching, or nearing, herd immunity. What exactly is that and how close are we to reaching it? What happens when we get there? Can we even get there?

We will have reached herd immunity when COVID stops spreading. Clearly, we are not there. There is no specific magic number. Given the way coronaviruses work, that is, the way they are able to mutate easily, rapidly and often, and that our immune responses to both natural infection and vaccination do not last indefinitely, along with the fact that half of the population in the US will not get vaccinated, we won’t hit or maintain herd immunity.

The original omicron variant seems to be passing, but there’s still the BA.2 omicron “stealth” sub-variant. What do we know about it, and should we be concerned?

This is the omicron variant with additional mutations. It does appear to be more contagious than the original omicron variant. It has not yet been identified in Michigan. However, it has been 8.3% of the samples submitted to the CDC from Feb. 20-26. It was only 3.8% of the samples sent to the CDC from Jan. 30 through Feb. 19, so a concerning increase. In other countries, it has taken over Omicron as the dominant variant. So, it is definitely a concern to keep an eye on.

Bottom line: Do we still need to wear masks? Who does still need to wear them and in what circumstances/situations?

We know masks, especially high-quality masks, will protect you from infection, but not 100%. We know vaccination will protect you from infection, but not 100%. We know the more COVID in your community and the more you are in crowded public areas, the more likely you are to contract COVID. 

We know infection with COVID-19 can cause illness ranging from no symptoms to death in any person, regardless of risk factors, however, those with any of a large number of health problems are at higher risk of serious illness and death. We know on average, one out of five or six people that get infected with COVID have symptoms lasting longer than a month, some lasting years and leading to disability. 

Each person needs to take these risks and options into consideration and make their own decisions. If COVID is still in your area, and you’d rather not take the risk of getting ill, missing work, infecting your family, and so on, and find wearing a mask in public to be a minor inconvenience, seems to me it would be a worthwhile thing to do.