Commentary: It's a race to the finish line--don't let Covid catch you

Bill Walczak

“Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.” 
– Michael Corleone, “The Godfather, Part 3”

It seems like every time we start to get ahead of Covid, Americans as a group decide to pull us back into the virus. Gov. Baker’s Nov. 6 order, requiring “all people in Massachusetts over 5 years of age to wear face masks or cloth face coverings in all public places, whether indoors or outdoors, even where they are able to maintain 6 feet of distance from others” is still in effect, but it seems to be slipping away as a key prevention measure.  

A friend on Beacon Hill told me that a few weeks ago there was nearly 100 percent compliance with the mask order, but now he sees older men walking the streets flaunting their masklessness.

You also see the slippage in mask-wearing in our neighborhoods.  I’ve noticed people in some stores not wearing masks.  Sometimes you’re told that the person is vaccinated, but how are we to know?  A third of Massachusetts voters checked the ballot for Trump. Are Trumpers deciding that they don’t care about whether they are infected?

The slippage in taking precautions against the virus tracks perfectly with the data: We are trending toward a new surge in Covid cases across the country and in our Commonwealth. It’s a trend that is especially affecting those under 30 years of age.  We could lose the war to the Covid variants.

But who wouldn’t be confused by the mixed messages that we are getting from our government officials?  The governor has opened indoor restaurants, even sports venues, so why wouldn’t people think it’s okay to drop the precautions?

But it’s not okay; there are still millions of Massachusetts residents who are unvaccinated, and there are many unanswered questions about what it means to be vaccinated.  You can still get the virus if you are vaccinated, but it’s likely you’ll be asymptomatic, and it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll wind up in the hospital as a result.

And we still don’t know whether vaccinated people can pass the virus to another person.  This includes children, who, some studies show, are likely getting the virus at the same rate as adults, though usually without serious symptoms.

Until these questions are answered, we need to continue to take the precautions we all know work well to stem Covid’s spread.  Although I’m vaccinated, I will continue to wear a mask in public for the foreseeable future, partly to not be a jerk by making other people fearful, and partly because I do not want to get an asymptomatic case that can be passed along to children, including the grandchildren with whom I live.

Until it is determined that vaccinations will keep the unvaccinated and children safe, people will need to continue to wear masks and practice social distancing when in public, or we’ll continue to have surges that will delay achieving herd immunity.  And our economy will not fully recover.  
I think that we’ll ultimately get to that immunity stage, at least within the region, but it won’t be until the children are vaccinated, which will be at the end of 2021 at the earliest.  In the meantime, coaxing people to participate in the economy again will require some assurance that we’re safe. 

Since the travel industry has been was devastated by Covid, some governments and travel industry leaders are talking about requiring a “digital passport” that will allow travelers to show they have been vaccinated.    

Employers and government cannot currently mandate vaccinations because the vaccines are not Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved, except for emergency use, though many universities and other private organizations are moving toward requiring a vaccination.  

We don’t need the law, however, to get close to a universal use of masks and other safety measures.  This would be done through the power of the purse.  The last thing businesses want is for their customers to feel unsafe, or to get Covid as a result of an interaction with their companies. 

Since it is not illegal for businesses to ask their staff members if they are vaccinated, the employers can determine that non-vaccinated staff wear masks as part of ta dress code.  This has been used to induce staff members to get their shots at health centers, as wearing a mask all day at work can be an annoyance.

Those of us who do not want to feel at risk can also let businesses know that we will not engage with those that that don’t have a mask requirement for both staff and customers.  If enough people walk out of businesses where maskless staff and/or customers are allowed, and let the managers know why, it will be a powerful incentive to enforce the governor’s mandate.

Based on current trends, it is likely that we will have 80 percent of adults vaccinated in Massachusetts by the Fourth of July, which should greatly cut down on transmission of the virus.  And we may soon find out if it can be transmitted by the vaccinated.  But to protect children, it is very important that we continue what we all both know and can do to protect others: wear a mask, keep socially distant from others not in your bubble, wash your hands, and wait until we hear a resounding “all clear.”

Bill Walczak is a Dorchester resident and co-founder and former CEO of the Codman Square Health Center. His column appears weekly in the Reporter.

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