Plenty of people were surprised and even caught off-guard last week when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that those who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear a mask in most situations. Many went on social media to talk about how the move has made them feel.
"Hell, no. I’m not going out without a mask. I'm having anxiety at the idea of it," one person wrote on Twitter. "Mask usage becoming less required gives me a lot of anxiety and I'm already vaccinated," another said.
Several people pointed out that it's impossible to know if other people who don't wear masks are actually vaccinated, raising anxiety even more. "If you choose not to wear a mask when interacting with an essential worker, please do them the courtesy of letting them know you are vaccinated," someone wrote. "It's the nice thing to do and could alleviate any anxiety they may be feeling."
Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life that he has been "advising a lot of people" about how to handle the new guidance. "People are nervous about this — I've heard it a zillion times," he says. "The mask has been their security blanket for 14-plus months."
The big concern, Russo says, is that "unvaccinated people won’t be wearing a mask." Dr. Stanley H. Weiss, an infectious and chronic disease epidemiology expert and professor at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and the Rutgers School of Public Health, agrees that’s a potential issue. "The CDC failed to fully appreciate the psyche of some of the people who have remained vaccine reluctant," he tells Yahoo Life. "The concept behind it was the hope that it would encourage them to get vaccinated. But I think it made them feel that they can get away with doing what they want."
But Russo says that you should be "just fine" to go out in public without a mask if you're fully vaccinated, as long as you're not immunocompromised (if you are, he recommends continuing to wear a mask, just in case). That is, of course, provided the public spaces you want to enter allow people to enter without masks. And, he points out, if you’re not vaccinated, you still should be wearing a mask.
If you're fully vaccinated and are nervous about going out in public without a mask, consider this advice from Alicia Clark, author of Hack Your Anxiety: Go easy on yourself.
"Recognize that this has been an incredibly long haul of complying with recommendations and protecting our health," she tells Yahoo Life. "Anxiety has been completely normalized. We’ve really recommended that people become more nervous about exposure to germs. Any change in recommendations should trigger an anxiety response."
But Clark says it's important to believe the information that you’re given from trusted sources like the CDC. "If you’re being told that it’s safe to remove your mask in public, then it's safe," she says. "If you don’t feel comfortable yet, that's OK — but don't let yourself get phobic about not taking off your mask."
Russo says he has advised people who are anxious about going maskless in public to take small steps, starting with taking off their masks outdoors. "We know it's much safer in an outdoor setting," he says. "That will be a baby step to get your sea legs under you, in terms of the new world that we're going to be living in."
From there, you may step things up to going maskless while popping into an uncrowded store, like your local bank — provided, of course, it doesn't require masks, Russo says. Eventually you may decide to build up to a situation where you'll encounter more people, like a restaurant or grocery store.
"There still will be times that it will take some courage and bravery, and you'll need to trust that you're going to be OK," Clark says. "It's important for us to get back to more of a sense of normalcy and engagement the way we want to."
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that you don't have to stop wearing your mask. In fact, Weiss says it's "absurd" to pressure people to stop wearing their masks if they choose to keep them on. "When in doubt, if you feel more comfortable wearing a mask at this point, that's fine too," Russo says. "It really depends on what you feel comfortable with."
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