The forever mask and the coming ‘cold’ war

Hang on to your N95s. This conflict may survive the pandemic

With the omicron variant of COVID-19 beginning to decline and even Dr. Anthony Fauci saying “Things are looking good,” people are talking about what a post-pandemic America looks like.

It looks like we’re still going to be arguing about masks — specifically whether we should continue to wear them in order to ward off common respiratory illnesses.

Call it the new cold war, the argument between people who are perfectly fine with masking forever and those who are so anti-mask that they’re expressing affection for the common cold.

“If colds disappeared, we would lose one of life’s most valuable little trials,” Peter Tonguette wrote recently for The American Conservative. In an essay entitled “Long Live the Common Cold,” he suggests that we should welcome “the sandpapery throat, the overfull nostrils, the dulling of taste” that accompanies a cold.

Incredibly, there’s new research that backs this up. Apparently having a cold revs up the immune system, which could help to protect us from COVID-19. But according to Tonguette, colds are equally useful in character building.

“The experience not only gives the immune system a welcome workout but the soul a necessary lesson in endurance: We are reminded that life will never be entirely free of discomfort, but that most species of discomfort — with patience and a little soup — will pass.”

Well, that’s one way to look at a cold. Another is that it’s an unnecessary misery that should be avoided at all costs. Put Sara Haines in that camp.

Haines, co-host of “The View,” recently said, “I may never ride a subway again without a mask. I may never go indoors (with) big crowds, never feel comfortable, without a mask.’’ She likened the use of masks and hand sanitizer going forward to heightened airport security after 9/11, saying it was weird at first, but we’ve become accustomed to these measures.

It’s true that levels of flu and other respiratory viruses plunged during the first year of the pandemic, although that’s likely because we were staying away from other people, not because we started wearing masks. (Researchers have also said this may be because we weren’t going to the doctor for minor illnesses, therefore cases of colds and flu may have gone unreported.)

Before the pandemic, most of us got 2 to 3 colds each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colds are generally just a nuisance; most of us still go to work when we have them. But they can rank high on the misery index and typically last 7 to 10 days, meaning some of us spend the equivalent of a month out of the year sneezing and coughing on our co-workers and fellow commuters.

Considering that, the forever mask, worn at least when we think we may be getting sick, is a kindness to the world, promoters of perpetual masking say. They note that we go to other lengths to prevent getting colds or to shorten their length, such as buying supplements that are supposed to boost our immunity. Why not take the extra precaution of masking — see it as the “new normal,” as Haines said — now that we’ve all figured out how to properly do it?

Tonguette argues that that we need to be willing to take some risks, to move past the idea that we must protect ourselves from all potential discomfort, no matter how minor.

“Do we really want to live in a world in which ordinary, run-of-the-mill cold viruses are forever extinguished?” he asks.

Well, yes, some of us do, and some of us would prefer to live in a world without mosquitoes, too.

But even Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, doesn’t suggest we wear masks after the pandemic has ended. She said in December, “Masks are for now, not forever.”

And Consumer Reports has cast doubt on whether mask wearing will keep us from catching a cold. Rhinoviruses are responsible for up to half of the colds we catch and can live on surfaces for more than a day. If someone sneezes on you while you’re wearing a mask, the droplets might not get through to your nasal cavity, but they can get on your hands when you remove the mask.

“Colds, like COVID-19, can be transmitted through the air. But if you’re catching colds this winter — despite vigilant mask-wearing and social distancing — you’re probably getting the germs from touching infected surfaces,” Sally Wadyka wrote for Consumer Reports.

In other words, mask up all you want after the pandemic, but you’ll still keep getting colds if you keep touching your face with unwashed hands. There are, however, other precautions you can take. As one person said recently on Twitter, “Covid or not, you do NOT need to stand that close to me in the grocery store.”

After the “cold” war is won, get ready to argue about forever social distancing.