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To Mask Or Not To Mask: A Georgetown University Doctor Weighs In

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

To mask or not to mask - that is the question floating in a lot of people's minds lately, especially as new data on the delta variant comes to light - data, which suggests that fully vaccinated people can spread the highly contagious variant. Many states, cities and individual businesses have reinstated indoor mask requirements for fully vaccinated people. And the CDC - well, they have too, but with caveats. And that has left many people confused. How the CDC has been explaining the new masking guidance is something I spoke to Dr. Ranit Mishori about. She's professor of family medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine and senior medical adviser at Physicians for Human Rights. Welcome.

RANIT MISHORI: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: OK, so the CDC guidance on masking has, in my opinion, been really confusing and inconsistent. What do you think the practical effects are, when there has been so much back and forth?

MISHORI: I completely agree with you, and you're not the only one who's confused. And I want to make it clear that I strongly believe that masking up is the essential thing to do to combat this highly infectious variant that we have now, the delta variant. But how it was communicated was indeed confusing. I think for me, the main issue was that the new advice to mask up indoors was tied to where you live, whether you live in a place with, quote, unquote, "substantial or high coronavirus transmission." But that is really giving people some homework to do. And who likes to get up first thing in the morning and see what the levels of transmission are in your community?

CHANG: Right.

MISHORI: How often do you check it? It is such a confusing message. And given that the delta variant is now the dominant variant in the country, I think a clear and perhaps more helpful message should have been something more uniform and universal.

CHANG: All right. Well, you and I are talking about ways in which the CDC could have done this better. But I mean, practically speaking, how difficult is it to do this kind of messaging clearly and effectively? Like, should we cut them some slack here?

MISHORI: I am a very, very big CDC fan, and I think they are the No. 1 public health agency in the country, if not in the world. But I take it back to - I think the original sin, as I would call it, was back in May with the reversal of the mask mandate. And I think at the time, the message was that if you are vaccinated, you get to take off your mask and you would be safe.

CHANG: Right.

MISHORI: And perhaps they thought that it would get more people to get vaccinated, but that's not how the public read the message. And a lot of people took it to mean that the pandemic was over.

CHANG: Right.

MISHORI: It wasn't over then, and it really isn't over now. But I think once you remove a restriction, it's really much more difficult to reinstate it. And we all know that masking is a highly political...

CHANG: Yeah.

MISHORI: ...Charged affair these days.

CHANG: Well, can we talk about how politics are an additional hurdle here, no matter what the science is? I mean, there are a lot of people out there who think that masking requirements are a violation of individual autonomy, a lot of people who don't believe the data around vaccines. How do doctors and scientists overcome that counternarrative?

MISHORI: We pull our hair.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MISHORI: We take a deep breath. Every day we talk to people who don't believe in the science. And it's hard, and it takes a lot of patience, but it takes more than the patience and the education on a one-on-one basis with doctor to patient or nurse to patient. This kind of misinformation and disinformation requires a national intervention. And changing policies, changing recommendations frequently is definitely not helping the cause of sending uniform and consistent messages that the public can't believe in.

CHANG: Well, I'm also wondering, Dr. Mishori, if you think that all this confusion regarding these new mask guidelines - if that's actually distracting from the more important message here, and that is people should just get vaccinated.

MISHORI: A hundred percent. Overall, you know, we focus perhaps too much on masking. And masks are effective in preventing transmission, but I think ultimately vaccination is our best path to ending the pandemic. And the CDC and the administration and all of us in the health care system - we need to come up with renewed efforts to get as many people vaccinated as possible in the U.S. and in other countries, because without more vaccination, this pandemic is not going away, mask on or off.

CHANG: That is Dr. Ranit Mishori of Georgetown University. Thank you very much for joining us today.

MISHORI: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.