Op-Ed: Lifting Mask Mandates Endangers Vulnerable People Like Me

face masks in theater

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Key Takeaways

  • California is one of several states that will end some mask mandates in indoor settings. 
  • Lifting mask mandates hurts high-risk individuals.
  • Omicron’s subvariant is believed to be very contagious, even among vaccinated people.

Julia Métraux is a journalist specializing in health and disability. Her work is featured in publications such as Narratively, Huffpost, Poynter, and Business Insider. Here, she explains how some states lifting mask mandates are failing to protect the most vulnerable.

Right before I entered my class at the University of California, Berkeley on Monday, I saw the news that California will lift COVID-19 mask mandates indoors for people who are fully vaccinated on Feb. 15, 2022. As someone who lives with vasculitis, this news disturbed me.

California is not the only state lifting mask mandates. Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon, and New Jersey are also changing some masking rules.

Vasculitis is an autoimmune disease that involves inflammation of the blood vessels. Sometimes my condition causes my oxygen saturation level to drop to the 70% range (when it should be around 95% to 100%) due to inflammation around my lungs. Even by going to class in person, where everyone wears a mask, I am taking a risk every single day. 

Like many people who live with high-risk conditions, I have had to practice an abundance of caution during the COVID-19 pandemic. After March 2020, I only saw one non-family member for the remainder of the year. But the problem is unless others continue to take COVID-19 measures seriously, my own measures are likely fruitless.

While it is undoubtedly good news that the original Omicron variant has appeared to hit its peak in California, many people, including kids under 5 who cannot yet get vaccinated, are still getting sick and being hospitalized.

In the United States, COVID-19 mitigation strategies are centered around reaction rather than preventative measures. When cases improve, masking guidelines are thrown aside, indoor businesses reopen, and restrictions are lifted.

People have suffered from this approach. Many have lost loved ones, and many others who contracted COVID-19 are now forced to find ways to live with debilitating, long-term symptoms from the virus.

If people who are high-risk for COVID-19 or are living with long COVID were more involved in the public health decision-making process, we would have a very different strategy.

If people who are high-risk for COVID-19 or are living with long COVID were more involved in the public health decision-making process, we would have a very different strategy. 

What Lifted Mask Mandates Ignore

In California, unvaccinated people above the age of 2 will still be required to wear masks in indoor places and elsewhere. According to initial reporting, school mask mandates will remain in place for now. It is unclear how this will affect students at colleges and universities. 

While Omicron may be subsiding, a subvariant of Omicron, known as BA.2, is spreading and is highly contagious. By lifting mask mandates, officials are ignoring the existence of this potential threat. It has already been detected in the U.S. and is now the dominant strain in other countries like Denmark. A new wave could be on the horizon.

Rescinding COVID-19 mask guidelines also ignores the strain COVID-19 variants place on hospitals, even for those that are supposedly "mild." Because hospitals are overwhelmed, many chronically ill people are experiencing their elective surgeries being postponed or even canceled in California and across the country. Many elective surgeries are not exactly optional for someone’s well-being. As CalMatters reported, procedures like lung transplants have been delayed.

Officials framing some symptoms of the Omicron variant and long COVID as mild also demonstrates their complete lack of understanding of how chronic conditions can be debilitating. When I am in the midst of a rough vasculitis flare, my chronic fatigue makes it difficult to get any work done. This could be considered a “mild” symptom because it does not send me to the hospital, but it does not have a mild effect on my life.

This is not to say that wearing masks all of the time is not difficult. I am a hard-of-hearing person who received a late diagnosis for my hearing loss because I was accustomed to lip-reading. I only really realized how my hearing loss affects my hearing when people started wearing masks at the beginning of the pandemic. Masking complicates this.

But moving through the world is safer for myself and other immunocompromised people if everyone continues to wear masks when necessary. 

Fortunately, as of now, both UC Berkeley and the city of Berkeley still have mask mandates, so the rug has not completely been pulled out from underneath me. But, I wish California and other states would protect vulnerable people and put us first.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Thompson D. California will lift mask mandate as omicron cases fall. U.S. News. Published February 7, 2022.

  2. Rong-Gong L. Money L. Optimism as Omicron peaks in California, but new BA.2 subtype raises questions. L.A. Times. Updated January 22, 2022.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Catch up on well-child visits and recommended vaccinations.

  4. Smith-Schoenwalder C. WHO: Data on ‘stealth’ omicron subvariant is ‘really quite limited.’ U.S. News. Published February 1, 2022.

  5. Feder Ostrov B. California weighs order canceling elective surgeries as COVID depletes hospital staffs. CalMatters. Published January 9, 2022.

By Julia Métraux
Julia Métraux is a health and culture writer specializing in disability.