Let's avoid extremes in the next phase of the pandemic: Viewpoint

Several states have begun lifting mask mandates as the omicron surge recedes. Some regard this as proof widespread masking was never needed. On the other end are those who see no endpoint to restrictions, viewing masks as a symbol of their belief in science. Both extremes should be avoided moving forward, according to Leana Wen, MD, Baltimore's former health commissioner. 

"Public health policy is nuanced and complex, and the sooner we acknowledge this, the quicker we can move from polarizing rhetoric to reasonable compromises that allow us to live with COVID-19," Dr. Wen wrote in a Feb. 8 opinion piece published in The Washington Post

Just because public health measures are being rolled back now doesn't mean they didn't have a place earlier in the pandemic, Dr. Wen said. Now, "Times have changed," she said, citing widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines along with evidence that vaccinations significantly lower people's death risk and respirator masks are highly effective at protecting wearers. 

"All of this explains why mask requirements were the right policy before and why masking can now move from a government-imposed mandate to an individual decision," Dr. Wen said. 

Pandemic restrictions have undoubtedly saved lives. At the same time, it's important to acknowledge the trade-offs that accompany the restrictions, she said.

"I think it's possible to hold two seemingly contradictory things to be true. It can be true that masks reduce respiratory infections and also that they can have unintended harms, especially in the very young and children with learning disabilities," Dr. Wen said, referring to research indicating visible articulations are critical to early learning. "Masks, after all, are a type of medical intervention, and nearly every intervention carries risks and benefits." 

Going forward, pandemic restrictions shouldn't be implemented with a "with us or against us" approach: "Sound policies require constant reevaluation of these trade-offs," she wrote. 

Dr. Wen is a professor at George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health in Washington, D.C. 

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