In a move that falls firmly in line with recent city- and statewide demasking policies, students at UChicago are—for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic—free to interact in most indoor settings entirely maskless. These new policies may seem sudden and are undeniably controversial, especially given that COVID cases remain relatively high compared to earlier in the pandemic. Yet the Omicron variant is now in rapid retreat; despite a recent uptick in cases at the University, the past few weeks have seen marked declines in COVID positivity and hospitalization rates on campus, across the city, and throughout the nation. Moreover, the UChicago community carries a significantly reduced risk of infection and extremely reduced risk of hospitalization from COVID-19 due to its student and employee COVID-19 vaccination rates of above 97% and 98%, respectively, and the COVID-19 vaccine booster requirement, which likely has a similar compliance rate (not to mention the developed immunity of those that have already contracted COVID). Unmasking is arguably safer now than at any other time in the pandemic. In fact, the likelihood of dying from COVID-19 as a boosted individual is now less than the likelihood of being killed in a car accident or by an influenza virus. Vaccinated individuals also may be less at risk of developing long COVID symptoms. For as long as the flu vaccine has existed, even the worst flu seasons haven’t warranted mask mandates or restrictions on in-person interaction as extensive as those introduced in response to COVID. With the near-total vaccination of UChicago’s student population, we believe that unmasking will be relatively risk-free and enhance the way students and faculty are able to interact and express themselves. For so much of the past couple of years, we've been interacting with one another behind screens and through pieces of fabric. It is due time we allow ourselves to return to pre-COVID in-person norms, and there’s good reason to believe doing so will be beneficial and relatively safe.
There’s a certain amount of privilege in being able to celebrate the implementation of demasking policies. For the most vulnerable members of our community, though––individuals that are chronically ill, immunocompromised, or otherwise more susceptible to COVID-related complications––it’s natural to feel as though demasking poses a threat. This isn’t entirely true; it’s now widely accepted that COVID spreads via aerosols, and that most masks that are not of the N95 grade––that is, most of the masks currently in use by students on campus––are less effective than surgical-grade masks at preventing its spread within a closed environment. However, N95 masks––which are much easier to obtain now than earlier in the pandemic––are extremely effective. In fact, one-way masking can be just as effective as a blanket masking mandate, so long as the individuals who choose to don masks wear N95s. As long as individuals susceptible to COVID complications have access to high-grade masks, they’ll be just as safe under a mask-optional policy as a campus-wide mask mandate. It’s crucial, then, that UChicago continue to provide access to high-quality N95 and KN95 masks as it has done for the previous two quarters. Healthy, vaccinated individuals can unmask without needing to worry about compromising the safety of their healthy, vaccinated peers, and people who are at a higher risk can mitigate that risk by making sure to get booster shots and wearing N95 masks when in unventilated indoor settings. Those worried about the more common complications associated with long COVID can take similar precautions. Moreover, as we enter the spring season, being able to open windows will make masking even more redundant, since ventilation goes a long way in reducing transmission.
It’s important to note the arbitrary nature of the University’s prior masking protocol and the resulting lack of adherence to it. Students were allowed to unmask in shared eating spaces, but were they to run in Ratner alone, they would be forced to re-mask, despite not being in close proximity to others. The illogical, often contradictory nature of these rules created confusion and resentment towards them; a short walk around the first floor of the Reg before the mandate was lifted would demonstrate just how widespread the disdain for masking policies were: dozens of students, within inches of each other, with their masks hanging off one ear or around their neck. Even students that did adhere to the mandatory masking protocol likely interacted with others who were less cautious in off-campus spaces––something that’ll occur with increasing frequency following the elimination of Chicago’s citywide mask mandate. Although the masking policies were well-intentioned, enforcing them was an uphill battle from the start.
We also can’t ignore the glaring reality that students don’t like wearing masks because they make in-person interactions a lot more cumbersome. Recent experimental research shows that masking can drastically alter how one’s facial expressions are interpreted by others; happy and sad expressions are perceived as more threatening, for instance. Moreover, it is simply much harder to hear and make yourself heard with a piece of cloth covering your mouth, especially for those who have impaired hearing and rely on lipreading to better understand people. By making it harder for us to read social cues accurately and communicate effectively, masking impairs our ability to learn, especially in discussion-based classes, and to connect meaningfully with those around us. While it’s no surprise that even healthy, fully-vaccinated individuals still maintain certain reservations about demasking policies, it’s worth noting that major stressors—like a long, protracted pandemic—have given rise to an even more insidious condition: anxiety. The pandemic’s effect on mental health is well-documented as being deeply detrimental, but new studies suggest that anxiety about COVID and COVID itself may be more intimately related than we could’ve imagined.
A recently published prospective cohort study found that those with higher psychological distress levels at the start of the pandemic were more likely to believe they had contracted COVID, as well as experience more severe symptoms. The results of this research are complex and don’t necessarily draw a super clear connection from worry about COVID-19 to the risk and severity of COVID-19 illness. However, we shouldn’t forget the negative impact that excessive worrying and stress can have on our physical health. COVID Stress Syndrome is now a legitimate diagnosis among mental health care practitioners. Perhaps it is best avoided with a reasonable analysis of one’s own risk of severe illness and effective ways to most reduce that risk, including, of course, a booster shot (or two). Given the strong protection of boosters and now a plethora of other preventative and treatment options, it seems the time is right to stop excessive worrying and begin transitioning towards pre-pandemic norms. As long as N95 masks remain an option for those who want to ensure maximal protection against COVID, doing so will not put others at risk and will allow us to finally experience college unrestricted.
Emma Weber and Luke Johnson are third-year students in the College.