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New Hampshire is at a COVID tipping point: How are experts keeping themselves safe? 

  • Sarah Pearson

Monitor staff
Published: 7/30/2021 10:21:35 AM

Even before the CDC reversed their guidance this week, mask-wearing recommendations were rife with contradictions.

The World Health Organization told vaccinated people to don masks. The Centers for Disease Control told vaccinated Americans they didn’t have to. New Hampshire towns, just miles apart from one another, imposed widely different face-covering requirements – in a short drive you could travel from a grocery store where masked people carefully tiptoed around each other to maintain 6 feet of distance to a bustling shopping mall where crowds weaved together maskless.

Now, to add to the confusion, the CDC has walked back its previous guidance, which stated that vaccinated Americans could go most places without a mask. The recommendations released Tuesday advised that all Americans in areas of “substantial or high transmission” wear masks in public indoor settings.

In New Hampshire, face-covering decisions will be left up to each individual – Gov. Chris Sununu said the state will not be issuing new mask guidance following the new CDC guidance.

“At this point, it isn’t about the government providing that bubble of safety around individuals,” Sununu told WMUR on Wednesday. Instead, he said it’s about the individual taking on personal responsibility. “It is your choice. We have all the power to protect ourselves and the community, and that’s getting the vaccine. It’s safe. It’s easy.”

According to CDC data, most counties of New Hampshire do not have enough cases of COVID-19 to put them in the top tiers of concern. However, as new cases trend up in the state, Granite Staters will soon have to wade through city, state, and federal guidance to decide whether – and in what circumstances – to wear their masks again.

The Monitor sent an informal survey to doctors and infectious disease specialists across the state to get a better idea of how experts are interpreting mask guidance and protecting themselves from COVID-19.

The survey listed a number of activities – like eating indoors at a restaurant, getting a haircut, going to a concert, and going grocery shopping – and asked experts to indicate which activities they feel comfortable doing at this stage in the pandemic. It also asked them to note whether or not they wear masks in each situation.

In some ways, the survey respondents were in agreement. All of the experts said they felt comfortable going grocery shopping. None of the experts said they felt fully comfortable going to a concert.

In other ways, their comfort levels differed: Some masked in almost every situation while others felt it was only necessary at hospitals or concerts.

Ultimately, the decision comes down to personal circumstances – the prevalence of COVID-19 in your area, whether you are immunocompromised or live with someone who has not been vaccinated.

“Everybody has a different acceptable level of risk,” said Dr. Ben Chan, the state epidemiologist, in an interview with the Monitor.

Of course, none of their answers are static. As the highly contagious delta variant spreads through New England, many doctors are reevaluating their behaviors surrounding COVID-19.

Dr. Aalok Khole, an infectious diseases physician at Cheshire Medical Center, said he has become more cautious in the last couple of weeks, and may still become more cautious as delta spreads.

“If you were to ask me these questions two or three weeks ago, I think the answer would have been different from today,” he said.

In June, as cases hovered at low numbers, he started loosening up – he shed his mask in grocery stores and started venturing into restaurants, after much convincing from his family members.

“I will be honest, I was anxious,” he said. “Especially because you know you’re in close quarters.”

But as he scanned through recent COVID statistics, as he does each week, he started reverting back to more conservative safety measures – he wears a mask in most public, indoor settings and avoids crowded places like theaters, bars and concerts.

If you do decide to dust off your mask this summer, Khole recommends making sure it’s still in working order. Surgical masks should be replaced after every use and fabric masks should be frequently washed.

He urged people to assess their own comfort in public spaces and determine what level of risk they find acceptable.

“I’m not saying everyone needs to be as conservative as I am,” he said. “But if anyone’s uncomfortable, they should not be made to feel like an outsider and they should be able to do what they feel is safe for themselves.”


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