Drop the mask, we've achieved herd immunity

June 9, 2022 | 06:01 pm PT
Quan The Dan Doctor
I think it is safe to say that Vietnam has passed the pandemic's peak and life is gradually getting back to normal.

The Ministry of Health early this month made adjustments to the required protocols that it issued back in 2020 to contain the spread of Covid-19, requiring people to wear masks, disinfect hands, keep a distance from each other, avoid crowds and make health declarations.

This has been whittled down to three measures: get enough Covid-19 jabs (at least two); wear a mask in public places; and disinfect one's hands often.

It is easy now for people to arrive at a consensus on getting vaccinated because the measure has proved its crucial role in the fight against the pandemic. These days, many people have even got the fourth shot.

One positive spin off of the pandemic is that people have developed the habit of disinfecting hands and surfaces.

But there are problems when it comes to wearing a mask.

To wear or not wear a mask has remained a rather contentious issue ever since the pandemic broke out. Now with Covid-19 under control, the question is back in the game.

When Ho Chi Minh City became the epicenter of the latest Covid-19 wave in Vietnam last year, my colleagues and I always wore two masks: one N95 mask inside and one surgical mask outside.

But after living with Covid-19 for far too long, we became less and less afraid of the novel coronavirus.

At first, we wore the personal protective equipment (PPE) as carefully as we could. We even used duct tape to cover the sleeves and the collar to ensure there would be zero space left for the virus to sneak in. Those days, we were literally soaked in sweat.

Over a period of time, we ran out of the Level A PPE, which offers the highest level of protection against respiratory hazards. Doctors and nurses gradually switched to use PPE of lower levels, even those at Level D, the minimum level.

Later when the epicenter of the wave moved to the northern region, there were occasions when we did not have time to put on the PPE and just walked into the patient’s rooms with our blouses.

But in all cases, we remained very careful about wearing the mask.

Now, looking back at our fight against the pandemic, we can see that some of the items that we used and the things that we did to contain Covid-19 led to unnecessary expenses.

The most necessary item was the mask, because the virus spreads through the respiratory tract.

I had traveled from the south to the north to fight the epidemic and been in contact with the source of the disease for nearly a year, during which I had always adhered to the mask principle. So far, I have not been infected. The protective effect of the mask is huge.

However, now that the pandemic situation has eased, the intensive care units have almost become empty, and society has basically returned to normal, is it still necessary to wear a mask?

To answer this question, the following foundations can be relied upon:

The first one is the immunity of the population. Usually, a community is immune to an infectious disease when more than 70 percent of the population is immune. At this point, the virus loses its ability to spread and the number of people that still get infected will only account for a small percentage of the population. The probability of meeting someone who is carrying the virus becomes very low, and even if it happens, the probability of being infected is even lower because you have been vaccinated. So wearing a mask is no longer necessary.

The second premise is to look at countries with the same vaccination rate as Vietnam and see what they are doing about the wearing of masks.

In the U.S., a federal judge in Florida declared in April that a mandatory order to wear face masks in means of public transportation was unlawful. Based on that ruling, health regulators have ended the requirement to wear masks at train stations, airports and on public transportation.

However, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends people to continue to use masks in the above locations. The vaccination rate (two doses) in the U.S. as of June is 67.2 percent.

In Europe, the requirement to wear masks on flights was lifted in May, but there are still 12 countries in the European Union that make the wearing of masks mandatory on flights, including Germany, Italy, Spain and Greece. The EU's rate of full-dose Covid-19 vaccination by June is 68 percent.

Until now, 81.5 percent of Vietnam’s 98-million population have been fully vaccinated, a rate that much higher than the world average.

Specifically, Vietnam has 77.7 million people vaccinated with two doses.

Given an average protection capacity of the vaccine at 80 percent, it means more than 62 million people have anti-bodies.

Besides, around 10 million people in Vietnam have contracted Covid-19, which means we now have at least 72 million people, or 73 percent of the population, with immunity.

These days, the mask mandate in places where it is not necessary, such as schools and offices, has become a mere formality rather than a solution to prevent disease transmission.

The third foundation is foreseeable dangers from the medical mask waste discharged into the environment.

According to studies cited in the Science Daily, an American website that aggregates and publishes scientific press releases, during the pandemic, the world used an estimated 129 billion masks per month, or three million pieces per minute.

Most of these masks, made mainly from microplastics that are difficult to destroy, have been discharged directly into the environment. American scientists also conducted a survey in 11 countries and found that waste from masks increased by 9,000 percent due to Covid-19. The world has spent mountains of money on medical masks and is facing the risk of not being able to solve all the environmental consequences with money alone.

Those foundations can help Vietnam consider the price that we have to pay for keeping us safe from Covid-19. Vietnamese society has got back its bustling vibe since April. We have gone through several big holidays during which large crowds had gathered, with and without face masks, but the number of Covid-19 patients recorded daily has kept going down. That is a clear sign that Vietnam has achieved herd immunity.

Therefore, it is time for us to boldly do away with all restrictions we’d imposed to protect ourselves against Covid-19 and truly return to the old, normal life.

Masks should still be made mandatory at particular places like hospitals or nursing homes. In public places, they should only be recommended and encouraged; and the recommendation should only be for cloth masks with high reusability, not the single use ones.

*Quan The Dan is a doctor. The opinions expressed here are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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