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No more masks but more anxiety for some

Experts tell how to know if your continued COVID worries are excessive

  • We need to respect vulnerable populations
  • Give yourself time to adjust to new reality
  • Check in to see if your anxiety is warranted

CHICAGO --- When the masks can officially come off in Illinois early next week, Northwestern Medicine experts say we must stay mindful of the more vulnerable among us. 

You may celebrate ripping off your mask, but the immunosuppressed, chronically ill and elderly populations may want to remain protected. We need to respect that. You also need to give yourself time to adjust to the new normal, experts say, and take it at your own pace. But check in with reality to see if your anxiety is really warranted.

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Dr. Khalilah Gates is an associate professor of medicine in pulmonary and critical care at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“Masks are just one prong of the multi-prong approach to limiting the transmission of COVID. The change in mask mandate is promising in that it is signaling a nearing of the end of this pandemic. But as we move forward, we must factor in our most vulnerable populations – immunosuppressed, chronically ill, elderly, unvaccinated for a variety of reasons including age and health conditions prohibiting vaccination. Masks have always been about protecting others as much as they have been about protecting ourselves, and we must enter this new phase with the same attitude.  

“Everyone will have to determine their own acceptable risk. This should not be a one size fits all scenario. If a person is more comfortable in a mask, then please continue to mask. We must provide each other the space and the grace to transition from this pandemic in the safest and best way for ourselves and our loved ones. There will be times, based on positivity rates, that mandates may need to be placed again. We must all remain flexible and remain dedicated to the greater good.”

Sheehan Fisher is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“Although having a break from wearing a mask feels wonderful, some may find it difficult to make this change because not wearing a mask has signaled danger for two years. Everyone needs to adjust at their own pace to the relaxing mandates and realize that their emotional reaction may take a brief time to adapt to the current public health recommendations. 

“In the meantime, they can communicate their perspective and needs when appropriate, and set boundaries with others. We should not view ourselves as the standard of how long it should take to adjust to the relaxing mandates and respect the variability of everyone's comfort level when negotiating how to interact in group settings with family or friends.” 

Dr. Michael Ziffra is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“There is subset of people — and in a lot of cases for justifiable reasons — who still have a lot of anxiety about COVID. They felt a sense of safety in being able to go out and know everyone had a mask on. Now that the mandate will be lifted, this creates a level of uncertainty and causes their anxiety to rachet back up. They worry about how they will deal with being in places where people are not wearing a mask, what to say to those people and what places they have to avoid. They are anxious about how to navigate all these situations. 

“In terms of their health, if they don’t feel comfortable going to a social situation because people are not wearing masks, then they shouldn’t go. If they think it’s important for other people to wear masks, they should speak up. Don’t do things that will compromise your health.

But you can worry too much

“There’s a fine line between an appropriate level of anxiety and one that’s excessive.  Some people’s level of worry might be higher than it needs to be. Be reassured by the fact that public health officials are giving us the guidance. They are looking at the science and giving us solid recommendations based on the evidence. These changes in the mandates are not coming from out of the blue. Hopefully people will feel some ability to relax their anxiety a little bit. 

“If health officials see clear evidence that things are worsening, they will speak up about it. It’s not like there is a free for all. 

“Check in with reality and see to what degree your anxiety is based on the facts. One element of the pandemic that has created anxiety is lack of control. It is helpful for people to appreciate the areas in which they have control. You have control over where you wear a mask, what sort of locations you do and don’t go to and what time of day to go to avoid crowds. We do have some ability to reduce our risk. It’s not as if everything is completely out of our control.”