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What are the rules when there are no rules?

Last week, a federal judge struck down the federal mask mandate for planes and public transit and the CDC has asked the Justice Department to appeal the ruling. However, this does not affect mask requirements in health care settings. University Health continues to require masking in its clinical and public spaces to protect patients, staff and visitors.

While mask mandates are changing, and many around us stop wearing masks in public areas and on transportation, it can be difficult to know whether we should, too. People can make the best decision based on their risk of exposure – and their risk of possibly transmitting COVID-19 or other respiratory infections to others. That risk level can change quickly, so it’s important for people to monitor COVID-19 activity in their community. It’s also important to remember that you always have the option to wear a mask if you want to be safer. Here are some guidelines to consider:

Transportation: Masks are a good idea. Air is continually filtered on airplanes but that does not protect individuals from potential infection from the people sitting closest to them. Crowded conditions in boarding and deplaning also bring increased risk of exposure. Buses and trains don’t have air filtration systems and passengers may spend long periods of time in enclosed spaces with others.

Interior spaces: Consider the situation. Large, well-ventilated spaces where people are spread out are lower-risk environments than small, crowded spaces. It’s important to consider community infection rates as well as your personal risk levels, the risk levels of those in your household, and the risk levels of people you may be exposing, in deciding whether to mask or spend time in these environments. One other factor to consider might be ease – while it can be challenging to constantly manage the mask-on, mask-off, mask-on ritual in an indoor restaurant situation, it is much simpler when entering a grocery store to simply don a mask and wear it for the duration of the visit. So even though the risk of exposure might seem low in a large grocery store, it is still a risk that can easily be mitigated.

Health care settings: Masking remains an important way to protect vulnerable populations and reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory infections. By its nature, a health care setting has more people with illnesses, people with compromised immune systems, and includes care settings for children under age five years who are still not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. It is important to use proven preventive health measures like masking and hand hygiene to protect everyone in that environment.

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