Why masking and testing continues

To mask or not to mask—it’s up to you. As of Monday, May 24, the University of Utah no longer requires face coverings on campus (with the exception of inside U of U Health dedicated clinical facilities and campus buses and shuttles). But that doesn’t mean that everyone will drop the masks. Kimberley Shoaf, a professor in the Division of Public Health, will still be wearing hers, even though she’s vaccinated. Why? We caught up with Shoaf to ask her that along with a few other questions about COVID-19 testing and precautions moving forward.

What will you personally be doing in regards to wearing a face covering on campus or in other public places? Why?

Personally, I will continue wearing a mask in public places, including on campus. The vaccine is amazing and highly effective, with about a 90% effectivity rate. However, that isn’t 100% and if I were to get infected, I am more likely to have severe disease. As long as the virus is still circulating at fairly high rates in Utah and the majority of Utahns aren’t vaccinated, I will continue to wear a mask.

How can we show respect for each individual's choice about whether to wear a face covering?

First of all, I want to acknowledge why we were wearing masks for the past year. COVID-19 is a very serious disease that caused a great deal of illness, death and sorrow for many people. As we started on this journey, we realized that wearing a face covering could protect us from the virus. The use of face coverings was most effective if both the infected and uninfected individuals wore them. Wearing a mask meant that I was protecting both me and you. This is still the case. Wearing a mask should still be seen as a sign of someone caring about their own health as well as the health of those around them.

Now, the CDC has said that people who are vaccinated may not need to wear a mask to protect themselves. But, it also indicated instances where those who are vaccinated may still want or need to wear a mask, such as when in crowded places with people who may not be vaccinated, or if they are immunocompromised. The CDC has also indicated that those who are unvaccinated should wear a mask, particularly in communities where there is still significant transmission of the virus.

I like to think that at the U, we see ourselves as a family that is making decisions based on science, following CDC’s guidelines to protect one another and get back to a sense of normalcy together. In my vision, that means we don’t need to worry about why someone is or isn’t wearing a mask.

Why might vaccinated individuals ask someone else in their presence to wear a mask?

There may be a number of reasons for people who are vaccinated to still want those around them who are unvaccinated to wear a mask. They may be at high risk for complications if they do get infected, which is still possible even with a vaccine. Or, the individual may be immunocompromised and may not have been able to mount a good immune response after being vaccinated. They may also have people in their family who can’t be vaccinated or are immunocompromised.

Those who are vaccinated, if they become infected may not have any symptoms but might still be able to transmit the virus. Unfortunately, this isn’t a situation where those who are vaccinated are 100% safe. If someone asks you to wear a mask or to stay at least 6 feet away, don’t be offended or think they are being paranoid. There are valid reasons for those who are vaccinated to still be concerned about COVID-19.

Has there been a shift in public perception around face coverings? Do you predict more people will wear them even post-pandemic, say for example, during cold and flu season?

I think there has been a bit of a shift in public perception around face coverings. I’ve heard a number of people talk about not getting a cold or the flu for the first time in years and attributing that to face coverings. I’ve also heard people say their allergies have been less severe this year with face coverings. Face coverings haven’t been widely used in the U.S., but many countries, particularly in Asia, use masks quite liberally.

Before the pandemic, it was pretty common for people to come to work sick, and some work cultures even encouraged it. Do you think that mentality has changed too?  

This is, for me, the most important change that we can make to keep workplaces safe. I hope that this has changed during this pandemic and continues to be the practice going forward. I know that it is hard to take the day off, you wonder am I really sick enough to not go to work? I hope that our newfound ability to work distantly will help individuals feel like they have alternatives to going into an office sick.

And finally, the U continues to offer asymptomatic testing. Why is that still important, especially if we've been vaccinated?

Asymptomatic testing is vital to keeping the campus safe. It was very effective last year in helping us keep from shutting down. But it is likely that asymptomatic testing may change going forward. Those who are fully vaccinated will likely not be asked to participate in the weekly testing on campus as long as they are asymptomatic. However, if an individual who is vaccinated has any symptoms, they should use the symptomatic testing option to be sure that it isn’t COVID.

Remember...

The university will continue to provide free, weekly asymptomatic coronavirus testing and a vaccination clinic on campus throughout the summer. Vaccinations are available for all members of the campus community (including friends and family of university faculty, staff and students) and can be scheduled online. You can also call the U’s vaccination hotline at 801-213-2874 (and press option 2) for assistance in finding and scheduling a vaccination appointment.