Now Is a Great Time To Wear Your Mask
COVID-19 care is about to get a lot worse for marginalized and uninsured people. Masking is one way you can help.
This Thursday, more than three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the official government public health emergency will come to an end.
You might think this means that COVID is over and done with, but it’s not. COVID-19 continues to be a leading cause of death in the United States. This may come as a surprise, especially considering that the GOP death cult pushed to move on from the pandemic from the beginning, preferring to sacrifice people for profits. But despite government and business leaders deprioritizing the pandemic, the virus has persisted. COVID-19 is far from over. That is why I am imploring you, dear reader, to be kind, and mask up.
Hear me out: just as this country ignores and punishes the most vulnerable people, so too has it ignored those most vulnerable to COVID. For years, disabled activists and immunocompromised people have pleaded for the general public to take basic precautions, such as wearing a mask in indoor settings, to keep them safe from COVID, even when government officials framed the deaths of only disabled and immunocompromised people as some sort of win.
If you’ve felt less concerned about masking over the past two years, you’re not alone. I mask in most indoor situations, like while grocery shopping or at concerts or movies, or when I’m not eating or drinking in restaurants, but I always find myself among only a handful of other people wearing a mask. I mask when I visit people I don’t see regularly and choose not to mask when I feel comfortable, and I have faith in other adults’ decision-making for what makes the most sense for them, too. But I also sense that the overall deprioritization of COVID has fostered a false sense of security around the virus, and a sentiment that masking is no longer necessary, too.
You can still choose to mask for your health and for the health of others, and to choose to mask again in public and in crowded indoor spaces is not “going back.” This is, after all, what the CDC is encouraging to people who are at risk of getting very sick from COVID: to wear a mask when in areas of medium or high COVID community levels. Otherwise, they still recommend masking for indoor public transportation, regardless of what is legally enforceable.
That is all to say, even without needing another reason, even without being concerned about the rate of community transmission, you can wear a mask—a well-fitted N95 mask, to be precise—to protect yourself, the people you love, and your community.
But in case you feel like you do need more of a reason, this is why masking now is still just as important of an anti-transmission tool as three years ago: The end of the emergency declaration is changing access to vaccination, testing, and treatment for COVID. From the Public Health Communications Collaborative, here’s a general overview of what’s happening to COVID resources based on insurance status, emphasis mine:
Vaccines will remain free for everyone when the public health emergency ends. As long as the supply of federally purchased vaccines lasts, COVID-19 vaccines will remain free … Once the federal supply of vaccines is depleted, vaccines will continue to be available and free for most people with private and public insurance.
Testing and Treatment: Coverage for COVID-19 testing and treatment will vary by insurance type. For people with Medicaid coverage, COVID-19 testing and treatment will remain covered at no cost through September 2024. For those without insurance, COVID-19 testing and treatment will no longer be covered, and the cost will be determined by individual providers. However, free tests and treatment may be available at local free clinics or community health centers. …
People who are uninsured will continue to pay out of pocket for COVID-19 treatments, except for federally-funded treatments like Paxlovid, which are free for everyone.
When will the vaccines run out? We don’t know. As of February, the federal government had an estimated 120 million vaccines available. It’s unclear what insurance plans will cover for testing and treatment. But people without coverage are screwed. And though the PHCC mentions that Paxlovid is free, I must note that Pfizer is also trying to sell these pills commercially later this year.
Such a financial barrier could help tank whatever momentum we had left three years into this crisis. And we’re looking down the barrel of another COVID domino effect, not just for uninsured people, but for other marginalized people, too. From KFF.org’s analysis on the end of federal COVID funding, emphasis mine:
The federal government’s inability to purchase additional supplies of COVID-19 tests, treatment medications, and vaccines could exacerbate existing disparities in health and financial security... While overall disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths have narrowed over time, data continue to show that people of color are disproportionately impacted by surges caused by new variants, and, as such, may have increased needs for testing and treatment. Moreover, data show a continued gap in vaccinations among Black people and point to racial disparities in uptake of booster shots so far. Any changes that result in more limited access to COVID-19 testing, treatment services, or vaccines, or that require people to pay out-of-pocket for these services, will likely exacerbate these disparities and may also result in more financial burden. Such changes would also disproportionately affect low-income people and those who are uninsured.
…Federal pre-purchasing of these supplies to date has provided a guaranteed market to manufacturers (locking in their availability for domestic use) and ensured that the U.S. has had initial access to the supplies. Without such pre-purchasing, manufacturers may reduce or halt production when demand declines (as has happened already with rapid tests) and/or it may become more difficult for the U.S. or for insurance companies to access supplies, as they will be in line with other purchasers globally. Together, this could contribute to shortages of supplies if and when the next COVID-19 wave hits and demand increases.
What a surprise! I’m left wondering how this drastic change in access will impact the people around me, and impact me in turn. Because I’m fat, I fall under the category of people who are likely to have a more severe reaction to COVID. I still haven’t tested positive for COVID, knock on wood, but I have no interest in finding out how my body would weather the virus.
Even then, I feel compelled to mask to prevent the spread of COVID to people more vulnerable than me. Coupled with the deeper impacts this change in COVID healthcare coverage may have on marginalized people, masking is one of the few things we can actively do to keep other people safe—like those who don’t feel safe going to doctors’ appointments in facilities that are dropping their mask mandates, or whose immune systems cannot fight off COVID and other myriad viruses.
Once again we are implored to step up where the government has failed us, and in some cases, has actively sabotaged us. And I understand, it sucks. Sometimes it sucks having to act in consideration of others. But all we have is each other, and in the grand scheme of community care, masking is such a simple, easy way to keep yourself and others protected.
The end of the public health emergency has raised the stakes even higher, and masking is a small action we can take to circumvent the government’s failure and get ahead of what might be worse repercussions for disabled, immunocompromised, and other marginalized people. I hope you feel encouraged to take that action with me.