Learning to live with COVID doesn’t mean abandoning masks

Queen’s should reconsider suspending masking mandates 

Adrianna believes that masking shouldn’t merely be a personal decision.

With Queen’s suspending masking and vaccination mandates starting May 1, it’s important we discuss why the popular notion of “learning to live with COVID” doesn’t mean we should throw our hands up in the air and hope for the best. 

Instead, learning to live with COVID-19 should mean increasing hospital staff and capacities, offering more accessible testing, improving ventilation infrastructure, and keeping in place the mandates that have saved countless lives over the last two years. 

For Queen’s, this means maintaining masking and vaccination mandates for an indefinite period. 

Queen’s claims its reasoning for the removal of mandates is grounded in the decline of COVID-19 hospitalizations. This logic is shortsighted. 

There have been significant increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations since Ontario’s mask and vaccine mandate removal—a trend reflected in several other provinces that have eased or removed mandates, including Quebec, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia.

Part of the increase inhospitalizations and COVID cases is due to the Omicron subvariant BA.2

While some claim the Omicron variant causes a “mild” infection, that doesn’t mean leaders should be content with the rapid spread of the virus. Numerous studies have found COVID-19 symptoms can persist in people with even mild or asymptomatic infections after the virus has exited the body. 

One particular study notes persistent symptoms may occur in up to 35 per cent of infected individuals, with symptoms ranging in severity from fatigue and difficulty breathing to decreased mental and cognitive functioning and multi-organ damage. This can impair daily functioning and effectively debilitate once healthy people.

Another study also notes the uptick in mild cases is concerning as it may result in a considerable number of individuals with difficult persistent symptoms. An influx of patients requiring long-term assistance would overrun Ontario’s healthcare system which currently doesn’t have capacity to provide this care.

Although many Queen’s students would likely be considered “low-risk” for severe illness or death, that doesn't mean they’re immune from the dangers of long-COVID-19. 

A UK study found young, low-risk patients, with few pre-existing conditions who suffer from ongoing symptoms experienced organ damage to one or more organs four months post initial mild infection. Long-term effects of COVID-19 can also come in the form of blood clots which increase the risk of heart conditions and strokes.

To suggest COVID-19 is “mild” and “like the flu” even in young, low-risk, healthy individuals is inappropriate and dangerous when there are an alarming of healthy young adults experiencing strokes and a plethora of other debilitating health issues. 

Some may argue while COVID-19 may still be dangerous, individuals will conduct “personal risk assessments” when determining whether to wear a mask. This is precisely what KFL&A Medical Officer of Health Piotr Oglaza, stated in a message to KFL&A in preparation for Ontario’s removal of the mask mandate.

The “personal” in the term “personal risk assessment” is misleading. The actions individuals take during this pandemic, such as masking or not masking, affect others.

Asymptomatic infections, especially in low-risk groups, are not uncommon. It’s possible an individual who deems themself low-risk and decides to remain unmasked in public spaces could unknowingly have an asymptomatic COVID-19 infection. Everyone around this individual some of whom may be high-risk, is now at risk of infection due to their decision to not wear a mask.

As we have been reminded since mask mandates began, masks not only protect the person wearing the mask but also those around them. However, masking isn’t nearly as effective if only “vulnerable” individuals wear a mask.

A study exploring the effectiveness of one-way masking concluded social distancing combined with only a vulnerable person wearing a mask still creates a high risk of infections. Specifically, this study found if neither individual is masking, even with a distance of three meters between them, a five-minute conversation has a 90 per cent risk of infection. When only the vulnerable individual wears a surgical mask, the risk reaches 90 per cent after 30 minutes. 

However, if both the infected and vulnerable individuals are wearing surgical masks, the risk drops to under 30 per cent after an hour of close contact. If both individuals wear an N95 or equivalent mask, the risk of infection further drops to 0.4 per cent after the same timeframe. 

Even if students take a personal risk assessment and find themselves to be low-risk and elect not to wear a mask, that doesn’t mean others around them are low-risk and can afford a COVID-19 infection. People who are seemingly young and healthy can have disabilities and chronic illnesses which make them more susceptible to severe effects of COVID-19. 

In university towns like Kingston, where students often live in spaces where true isolation is impossible, we should be mindful of how our decisions may affect others around us. Even if you and your friends deem yourselves to be “low-risk”, that doesn’t mean this is the case for an immunocompromised housemate. 

While remaining masked isn’t fun, neither is contracting COVID-19 and being at-risk for experiencing the possibility of life-altering long-COVID-19 symptoms—nor is it fun to send someone to the hospital because you deemed yourself to be low-risk.

The masks will come off one day, but the increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and the lack of information on treating long-COVID mean that day hasn’t yet come. Wearing masks is one of the simplest, most effective, and least invasive ways to protect yourself and others against the dangers of COVID-19. 

Queen’s owes it to its students to re-implement the mask and vaccine mandate to protect both healthy and vulnerable staff and students. While it may be a minor inconvenience to wear a mask for a bit longer, these mandates have—and will continue to—save countless lives. 

To effectively learn to live with COVID-19, we must continue exercising the least-impairing, life-saving strategies until we have better methods of protection and treatment. Learning to live with COVID-19 means wearing masks, at least for now.  

Adrianna is a second-year Sociology student.

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