According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID Data Tracker, coronavirus hospitalizations — fueled in part by the new Eris variant, while officials sound the alarm about Pirola — are surging. Because this increase in COVID-19 infections coincides with back-to-school season, some families are choosing to start wearing masks again to stay safe. Others say they've never stopped.
Here, they share what it's like to adhere to a strict policy of mask wearing.
'We haven't had a winter cold in years'
Lori in Virginia (who prefers not to share her last name) says that she's become more lax about masking lately, but that her family largely remains vigilant. “I will still mask in crowds or somewhere I’ve been for a long time, while my husband will mask anytime he’s in public,” she says.
Last year, Virginia barred mask mandates in schools. While the school that Lori's kids attend prefers that students don't mask, she says she hasn't received any pushback if they do.
“We just started back, and there are teachers masking,” she says. “My kids will mask at school when there’s an obvious illness or they feel uncomfortable. Also, if they themselves have a cold or cough.”
Lori has a large family, and after the initial lockdowns and mandatory masking started in 2020, she noticed that the usual steady stream of illnesses running through the house no longer emerged during the colder months. “We are all rarely sick, now that we do this,” she says. “And we haven’t had a winter cold in years.”
“I still have four people in my house who have never had COVID,” Lori adds. “And masking has helped us just have an active normal life, where we continue to participate in activities and travel.”
'I haven’t had anything more than a weird jab or two from strangers'
Katie Y., her husband and their two children have not stopped masking since 2020. One of their children is a pediatric cancer survivor, with other health concerns due to chemotherapy, and Katie herself had cancer last year. Additionally, they have disabled and elderly friends in their community whom they feel the responsibility to protect.
“Culturally, we have had an easier time masking, because our family has Asian heritage, and masking is very common and used in public health strategies in Asia. Our extended family masks frequently when traveling or going to work or school,” she says.
While they have experienced some pushback from strangers, Katie says that most of their friends and acquaintances are tolerant of their choice to wear masks. “I haven’t had anything more than a weird jab or two from strangers, and my children’s friends are very tolerant, particularly once he explains that his family members are at risk of severe complications,” she says. “Kids have been the most tolerant, while work trips have been the most awkward.”
The family's general rules for masking, Katie says, are that they don’t wear masks outside unless they are having issues with seasonal allergies, and that the children take their masks off for lunch at school. They do eat at restaurants on occasion, but either sit outside if weather permits or request a table in a less crowded area. Additionally, they avoid dining out during COVID surges. “Since [half] of our family needs to protect our health, we can’t gamble that we will handle COVID OK,” she says.
Like Lori, Katie says masking has helped the family avoid seasonal colds and the like.
“Since COVID started in 2020, the four of us have only had two illnesses in total, and my son was able to stop taking a daily inhaler. I believe not getting sick has been very helpful toward healing his asthma, and all four of us have felt the benefits of not getting winter bugs or the flu,” she says.
'I’m very open and frank with how I feel about masking'
Selene Christenson also noticed how healthy her family was during the lockdown period. “We had minimal illness in the house during mandatory masking, whereas before, we would have several doctors’ visits, missed days from work and school, due to flu, bronchitis and even a several-weeks-long case of pneumonia,” she says. “Not dealing with that was really nice!”
Because Christenson has dealt with a chronic illness since 2012, she has to be especially cautious. “Feeling proactive about protecting my health helps,” she says.
Christenson works as a nanny for health professionals, which has "influenced my decision to mask." She explains, "I would feel horrible and responsible if their toddlers became ill on my account."
Christenson has two teenage children, and her oldest does not mask as strictly as she does, but that is a decision she has left to him. “He is an adult,” she says. “But I appreciate that if he is out with me or if I express concern about specific situations, he usually does wear a mask.” Her younger child is the only member of their house who has not contracted COVID, and she would like to remain COVID-free, so she masks willingly.
“I’m very open and frank with how I feel about masking,” Christenson says. “We talk about it openly, and mostly, my children agree that they don’t want to be sick or get anyone else sick.”
What an expert says
The increase in COVID hospitalizations and the emergence of new variants have prompted some institutions — including the historically Black Morris Brown College — to reinstate mask mandates. Unless mandated, health experts say the decision whether to mask is an individual one that really depends on a person's risk tolerance.
“You’ve got to watch the uptick,” Dr. Robert Hamilton, a board-certified pediatrician from Santa Monica, Calif., and host of the podcast The Hamilton Review, tells Yahoo Life. “We may need to go back to that level of concern and caution.” But Hamilton does not believe that masks for everyone are the answer, though he does urge parents to keep children home from school if they are showing signs of illness. “For the average individual who doesn’t have an immunodeficiency issue or lives with elderly relatives, I think that going without a mask is preferable in schools,” he says.