It is not yet time to unmask

It is not yet time to unmask

Last Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention downgraded its covid-19 mandate recommendations, leading many to declare that the pandemic is nearly over. New York Mayor Eric Adams said, “When we take off the mask…, [it’s] a symbol that we are back.” That is not exactly what the CDC was signaling, but it is the perception. Here is what is wrong with that perception:

Seven million Americans are immunocompromised, and nearly 80 million are unvaccinated. You just took a PCR test and tested negative for covid-19, so you confidently walk unmasked into a crowded room—and infect someone at risk because you have the newest covid-19 variant of concern, known as BA.2. PCR tests cannot detect BA.2, which is why it is also known as the Stealth Variant.

A second thing wrong with the perception is the fact that protection against covid-19 begins to wane after four months, when breakthrough infections begin to appear. A report on Monday from Hackensack Meridian Health Systems confirms what is being seen elsewhere. Hackensack Meridian’s chief physician executive Dr. Daniel Varga said, “We saw this a lot. Breakthrough infections that we saw virtually never happen in the first four months after somebody either completed their primary immunization series or got their booster…. Then in the fifth month, or the sixth month, the cases just started breaking through.”

The third thing wrong with this perception is that it “is all unraveling in real time,” according to Dr. Suraj Saggar, chief of infectious disease at Holy Name. “We have to look at all the data. It takes time for the data to be accumulated and analyzed in a scientific manner.”

Letting down our guard before that data is “accumulated and analyzed in a scientific manner,” therefore, makes no sense.

We all need to heed the words of that great (albeit transplanted) New Jersey sage Lawrence Peter Berra, who said nearly 50 years ago, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

Covid-19 “ain’t over,” even if our political leaders and the government agencies answerable to them are acting as though it is.

According to University of Washington School of Medicine virologist Dr. Deborah Fuller, covid-19 is staying a step ahead of our immune systems when what we want is for “our immunity [to] be a step ahead of the next variant that comes out….I don’t know that we’re quite there yet.”

“Before [BA.2] came out,” she adds, “we were about 10 feet away from the finish line. Taking off the masks now is not a good idea. It’s just going to extend it. Let’s get to the finish line.”

The cardiologist Dr. Eric Topol agrees. He is executive vice president and professor of molecular medicine at Florida’s Scripps Research Institute. As he recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, when governments begin to relax or end their restrictions, “many people interpret that message as meaning the pandemic is actually over — for good. That would be a fantasy given the myriad opportunities for the virus to haunt us in the months and years ahead.”

“If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic,” Topol wrote, “it’s that the virus has an extraordinary ability to adapt—and it is unpredictable…. There are just too many vulnerable hosts out there for more evolution of the virus to take place…. When the virus is not contained…, its spread creates the potential for new variants. In these new hosts, the virus could possibly evolve to a new, more deleterious version.”

In the wake of the CDC’s announcement, Topol told USA Today that it is still “a little early” to lift mask requirements and other covid-19 restrictions. “I look at the numbers,” he said. “They’re not where I feel comfortable.”

Jewish law would seem to side with Topol and Fuller, because halachah prefers to trust the science rather than the shifting political winds.

Next Friday, March 11, marks the beginning of the pandemic’s Year 3. We all are impatient to get back to normal. As the numbers of infections and deaths decline, our impatience is driving political decisions that are sending non-governmental epidemiologists and virologists, at least, up a wall.

Yogi Berra said other things, as well, that apply: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future” and “we made too many wrong mistakes.”

It is tough to predict what letting down our guard now will do, but we do know that so far, “we made too many wrong mistakes.” Just when we thought the coronavirus epidemic was under control, the Delta variant reared its head. In late November, when we thought there was a light at the end of that tunnel, Omicron struck with a vengeance. While Omicron accounted for fewer than one percent of U.S. cases in early December, it rose to 98 percent of cases here by mid-January.

Now, as Omicron wanes, the hard-to-detect BA.2 arrives. It has already spread to at least 80 countries and is the dominant strain in many of them, including Denmark (92 percent of cases), and South Africa (86 percent of cases, up from 27 percent in a single week). As of last week, one in five people worldwide are reported to have been infected by BA.2. It is also reinfecting people who previously had been infected by Omicron.

This so-called “Stealth Variant” also has been found in at least 48 states here, although the number of cases overall is said to be below five percent, as of the writing of this column. Cases in the New York-New Jersey area, however, were in the 6 percent range as of last week.

Aside from being hard to detect, BA.2 is said to be about 30 percent more contagious than Omicron and also more transmissible.

Gov. Phil Murphy, for one, is not unmindful of the risks. He said last week that New Jersey will be ready if BA.2 or other variants do surge. “Whatever it is, we’ve got a wall of resources … at our disposal,” Murphy said.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said last week that she was keeping an “eye on any global trends that are out there because … back in November, it seemed like it could be a safe time to start talking about loosening up some of the requirements—and that would have been the wrong decision… [because of] what happened with Omicron when we were just walloped with a variant that spread like wildfire.”

Political leaders here and around the globe need to be more concerned about BA.2 than their actions demonstrate. Denmark lifted all its restrictions on February 1, only to see BA.2 become dominant within the next three weeks, and the number of covid-19-related deaths go up again. As one American epidemiologist, Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, tweeted somewhat ungrammatically last week, “This is what happens when a country’s leaders gaslights its own citizens.”

For the record, Feigl-Ding is a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington D.C. He was already raising covid-19 warnings two months before it was officially declared to be a pandemic.

There are so many reasons to be concerned about a variant that is more contagious, more transmissible, and defies easy detection. Heart disease, for example, accounted for as many as 40 percent of deaths in 2019, the year before Covid-19 struck. Since the pandemic began, according to the CDC, there have been at least 30,000 more heart-related deaths here, and nearly 62,000 additional deaths due to hypertensive disease than in pre-pandemic times.

Dr. Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, president of the American Heart Association, warns of a coming “tidal wave of cardiovascular events” because of Covid-19. Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly calls it a potential earthquake. He is chief of research and development at the Veterans Administration St. Louis Health Care System and a clinical epidemiologist at Washington University. “Governments around the world need to pay attention,” Al-Aly said. “We are not sufficiently prepared.”

Ever since Moses came down from Mount Sinai, Judaism maintained that when it comes to matters of health, we need to listen to the medical experts. “Rabbi Eleazar said: Honor your physician even before you need him.” (See the Jerusalem Talmud tractate Ta’anit 3:6, 66d.)

While God is our eventual healer (see Exodus 15:26), God does this healing through the physicians. That is why “whoever is in pain goes to the physician’s house.” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Kamma 46b.) As BT Berachot 60a explains, “permission has been given [by God] to the physician to heal.”

Judaism wants us to listen to the qualified medical experts, not to the poll-reading politicians. “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” We still need to be fully vaccinated, including booster shots—very likely including a second booster by this fall. We still need to social distance and wear N95 masks. We still need to stay out of poorly ventilated indoor spaces. Most important, even if we prefer not to wear those masks, we still need to do so for the sake of those more vulnerable.

Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is