April 20, 2022

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

The U.S. Department of Justice says if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decides that masking is necessary to protect the public from COVID-19, it will appeal a federal judge’s ruling to end the CDC’s mask mandate for mass transit.

If the DOJ is successful, passengers in airplanes, trains, subways, buses, taxis and ride-share vehicles may have to put their masks back on while the courts sort out the legal arguments over whether the CDC exceeded its authority by imposing the mandate a year ago.

The DOJ statement says the department “continues to believe that the order requiring masking in the transportation corridor is a valid exercise of the authority Congress has given C.D.C. to protect the public health.” The statement also says, “That is an important authority the department will continue to work to preserve.” The statement falls short of promising an appeal or a stay but instead says it depends on whether the CDC believes it is still necessary. The mandate was due to expire on May 3.

It is difficult to believe that the CDC, DOJ and Transportation Security Administration did not have a battle plan ready in case a judge somewhere made such a ruling, considering that there are dozens of lawsuits pending that challenge the mandate.

On Tuesday, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was not requiring masks, but Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport was. New York airports require masks but, across the border, New Jersey airports don’t. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the New York City subway system, announced that mask rules would remain in effect, while NJ Transit dropped mask requirements.

President Joe Biden and the CDC said in February 2021 that there was an urgent need to enforce mandatory mask-wearing on mass transit. A week ago, the CDC saw a need to extend the mandate. So how urgent is the need to wear masks? Read this post from a CNN journalist traveling with the president, who a full day after a federal judge overturned the mask mandate still had not talked with the CDC about what’s next:

Let’s start by remembering that we are still in a national emergency, we are still in a pandemic, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising in the northeast and about 425 people die from or with COVID-19 every day in the United States. Put in perspective, that would be an annual rate of 155,000 deaths in a year if it persisted.

It might be a good time to recall that two years ago, some of the worst-case estimates were that maybe 200,000 Americans would die in the pandemic. As it is, sometime around Memorial Day, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 will top a million, if it has not already done so.

Look at this data table from The New York Times and you will see some states’ cases are way up, hospitalizations are rising but still near pandemic lows, and death rates are flat in the most infected states.

(The New York Times)

Also note that raw numbers, not percentages, may be more useful at a time when the raw number is low because when there is a modest increase in numbers, the percentage looks inflated.

Two years ago, the CDC said masks were useful to keep infected people from spreading the virus. Now, N-95 masks are promoted as protecting the wearer.

If you cross the border into Canada, put your mask back on, and not just at the airport. The government rules there are incredibly detailed. Global News updates us on how, like some states in the U.S., provinces relaxed COVID-19 rules faster than the federal government, which led to conflicting rules:

Whether you’ve toured the globe or stopped in the United States to fill up the gas tank, when you return to Canada, you must wear a face mask in public for 14 days.

The federal border requirement, however, is now out of step with the rules in B.C. and almost every other province, where masking is no longer legally required in public indoor spaces.

Anyone entering Canada must also keep track of all close contacts for two weeks and closely self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms, according to Ottawa’s rules.

Will mask wearers be ridiculed?

I am not traveling this week, but if I was, I might not wear a mask in the airport terminal but probably would on the plane.

Last month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis mask-shamed some high school students, which prompted The Miami Herald to ask its readers for their mask-shaming experiences. Readers said they had been called “communist” and a “Fauci puppet.” Mask shaming seems to have picked up as states and now mass transit systems relax mandates. Salon reports:

In the more extreme cases, like DeSantis, psychologist Dr. Carla Manly — author of “Joy from Fear” — believes that mask-shaming stems from an person’s inability, and unwillingness, to honor the personal preferences of another person.

“A lack of empathy — the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes — is also apparent when shaming of this sort occurs,” Manly said. “Judgmental attitudes and rigid thinking patterns foster the ‘right or wrong’ mindset that is at work in ‘mask shaming.'”

Indeed, there has been much ado over the “empathy deficit” in America over the last decade. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), scientific research supports the idea that Americans are becoming less caring for others. Psychologists say genetics can play a role in an individual’s lack of empathy, yet community or the lack of community plays a role, too.

Conversely, California-based therapist Nick Bognar said that in some scenarios, mask-shamers could be well-meaning yet express it poorly. In other words, some might genuinely think they are helping others by reminding them they don’t have to wear a mask anymore.

Mask shaming is a topic that human resource managers and attorneys who work on workplace harassment cases are paying attention to these days. The Society of Human Resource Management website offers this passage:

Acts of mask shaming can run the gamut from rude to passive aggressive, said Cindy-Ann Thomas, an attorney with Littler in Charlotte, N.C. It may include an employee telling a colleague, “I can’t believe you are still wearing those ridiculous things!”

But an attempt to shame a co-worker can be subtler, she added, such as, “We would have included you for our team lunch yesterday, but the restaurant had no patio and you’re still masking.”

Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth at Work in Chicago, said examples of mask shaming have included sharing such hashtags as #SheepWearMasks on internal communications.

In one specific case, he noted that ill-intentioned pranksters added pacifiers and baby food jars to a basket of free masks in a company break room.

Some statements may create discomfort and constitute a respect or privacy policy violation, he added. These statements might include telling a masked colleague: “You must be really immunocompromised, right?” or “Lower your mask a bit, so I can see that warm smile of yours.”

Mask shaming may include such negative comments as masks aren’t working, that the mask wearers are bowing to pressure from politicians or giving up important freedoms, said Maura McLaughlin, an attorney with Morgan, Brown & Joy in Boston. It can include “helpful” reminders that masks aren’t required as well as verbal and even physical assault, she said.

One expert offered Salon some model language for a mask wearer to use if confronted by an anti-masker. The advice is to say, “I honor your choice to not wear a mask, I find it necessary to wear a mask; please respect my choice just as I respect yours. Thank you.”

I am not suggesting that is what I would say. Your wearing a mask does not bother me or cost me a dime. Neither do your tattoos, hair color, head covering, gender, identity, religion, accent or whether you put mustard on your hot dog. I do take a strong position against the extra innings runner rule in Major League Baseball because that does affect me. But generally, you be you.

In one move, CDC removes all 89 countries from ‘do not travel’ list

All 89 countries on the CDC’s “do not travel” list suddenly dropped from the list. They moved from “do not” to “high” alert and the highest level is now called “special circumstances.” No country is at that level at the moment.

(CDC)

Here is what the CDC tells travelers to each country:

(CDC)

Now, most countries get a generic advisory that looks like this:

(CDC)

You can see the entire list here.

COVID reinfections documented three weeks apart

The CDC has been trying to figure out how often people can be reinfected with COVID-19. Researchers have found people have gotten infected, recovered and gotten reinfected in as little as 23 days. It runs against conventional thinking that infection provides reliable immunity. The study was pre-omicron and most of the subjects (and keep in mind, there were only 10 of them) were not fully vaccinated or were unvaccinated.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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