As masks come off, vulnerable Americans feel left behind

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“The pandemic is not over,” said Elena Hung, co-founder of Little Lobbyists, an advocacy group for chronically ill and disabled children. “What the CDC is doing is leaving out immunocompromised and disabled people.”

Hung, whose 7-year-old daughter needs a kidney transplant, met with officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year and asked the agency to continue mask requirements, which help protect people like her immunocompromised daughter.

When she later heard that the CDC would not do so, “it felt like a betrayal,” she said.

The CDC declined to comment. Last month the agency eased indoor masking guidelines, saying it would rely on hospitalization numbers to measure the virus’ impact rather than infection rates.

That change meant that suddenly 70 percent of the country lived in an area that the CDC said didn’t have enough Covid cases to warrant a mask mandate. On Thursday, the CDC announced that 98 percent of Americans no longer need to mask indoors because they live in communities with low to medium risk of overwhelming hospitals. The administration is considering when to remove mask requirements for rail and air travel.

“What’s so harmful about what the CDC is doing is their messaging: If you tell people you don’t have to wear masks, you can if you want to, no one is going to do it,” Hung said.

Covid cases have rapidly declined from their January peak, but tens of thousands are still infected every day. People with cancer, Crohn’s disease, diabetes and organ transplants are more likely to suffer serious consequences from Covid-19, even as the vaccines have significantly reduced the mortality rate for the population as a whole.

Nearly half of Americans said the removal of pandemic precautions like indoor masking is premature, according to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The survey, conducted in February, found that 49 percent of adults were either “very worried” or “somewhat worried” that relaxing restrictions would result in more people dying in their communities.

Sixty-one percent of respondents said they were “very worried” or “somewhat worried” that the new measures would leave behind immunocompromised people.

“It’s important to realize how they’ve [the CDC] shifted the pandemic onus to individuals,” said Gregg Gonsalves, an infectious disease expert at Yale University.

“They’ve taken the public out of public health,” he said. “If you or I don’t want to catch Covid, we’re on our own.”

Since last year, Gonsalves has tried to press his point with members of the administration, some of whom he’s known for years, but said he has since given up after receiving no response.

“It seems as if we’ve decided, for political purposes, the pandemic is box office poison,” he said.

There are more reasons for concern, even for otherwise healthy, vaccinated people, who statistically face a small chance of a severe outcome, said Ezekiel Emanuel, a former White House official.

Scientists do not know why some people — even seemingly healthy — have long Covid, and suffer with debilitating symptoms months or years after their initial infection. He called the removal of mask recommendations “premature,” given that case counts remain relatively high.

Matthew Cortland, a disability rights advocate who takes immunosuppressant drugs, said they aren’t letting down their guard anytime soon. They’re also upset by the administration’s relaxing of precautions that would protect people like them.

“Their guidance devalues the lives of chronically ill, immunocompromised and disabled people,” they said.

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