Slowly but surely, vaccine distribution is pushing us toward the light at the end of the COVID tunnel.
While every shot administered is a small victory, medical experts agree that caution is still needed in the fight against the coronavirus. We are all sick of this pandemic and have been for months — but we can’t let our guard down quite yet.
It is important, however, to heed well the actual advice of those medical experts and avoid unnecessarily restrictive measures or practices that aren’t actually science-backed. Case in point: The University of Massachusetts Amherst sequestered students to their dorms on Feb. 8 after a surge in coronavirus cases on the campus. It’s good that the university is seriously responding to a spike — but the order included a ban on exercising outside including walking, except for picking up food at dining commons, twice-weekly COVID testing and medical necessity.
After many found the restrictions a bit too draconian, the university relented this past weekend and reallowed outdoor exercise, though masks are still required even while walking or jogging outside. While risk of transmission is never zero, medical experts agree it is significantly lower outdoors and nearly negligible when interaction is brief, such as walking or jogging by a stranger — mask or not.
This COVID absolutism has its price. Yes, caution certainly is still warranted. Medical experts continue to stress avoiding indoor gatherings, masking while indoors with others and frequent hand-washing — orders that individuals and institutions should heed. But as many health experts have pointed out over the last year, quarantine fatigue is very real. People only have so much bandwidth; if we want them to follow the necessary, evidence-backed precautions, we must avoid policies that needlessly muddy the waters of risk management and drain our quickly depleting collective patience. COVID absolutism also gives ammunition to those who would, unwittingly or otherwise, spread disinformation about the still very real risks of the pandemic. Strictures not supported by medical expertise or transmission data give a foothold to those who would undermine the risk-informed policies that do meaningfully curb cases.
“There’s a delicate balance between preventing infections and increasing lockdown fatigue,” tweeted virology expert Muge Cevik, who has researched and written about COVID transmission. “People do not have unlimited energy, so we should ask them to be vigilant where it matters most, which is indoors, while giving them a break outdoors.”
If wearing a mask outside makes people more comfortable, then they should — those of us that are higher-risk or live with someone who is can’t be blamed for taking extra precaution. But UMass should let students jog outside without masks. People shouldn’t stare daggers at their neighbors if they pass by maskless on the sidewalk while walking their dog.
The more vaccines get distributed, the closer we are to having this deadly pandemic on the ropes. We should absolutely continue to be vigilant— where it actually counts.