Navigating new mask guidelines: What the IBD community needs to know

With mask mandates ending for most states across the country and the CDC once again changing its guidance about masking, it’s a cause for concern for many who are immunocompromised or considered higher risk for Covid-19. As an immunocompromised mom of three kids under age 5, I feel a bit uneasy about the shift in measures, even though I had Covid-19 in January. I contacted my GI this week to ask her opinion on the mask mandates lifting and navigating this time as an IBD mom. She didn’t hesitate for a second and told me to keep masking—not only for myself but because of my kids. She herself hasn’t stopped masking in public and doesn’t plan to anytime soon.

I polled my followers on Twitter and Instagram by asking: “Do you still wear a mask in public, indoor spaces?” Nearly 500 people responded. On Instagram, 69% responded “yes” to still wearing masks and 31% responded “no”. On Twitter, 88% responded “yes” and 12% responded “no”.

This led me to dig a bit deeper and hear what several top gastroenterologists who specialize in inflammatory bowel disease had to say on this controversial and politicized issue.

Dr. Aline Charabaty, MD, Assistant Clinical Director of the GI Division at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and the Director of the Inflammatory Bowel Diseases Center at Johns Hopkins-Sibley Memorial Hospital, offered several fantastic analogies for the IBD community. The one that really hit home to me was talking about family planning and remission in Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. If you are flaring and want to start a family, the rule of thumb is to be off steroids for at least six months to ensure disease activity is calm. We JUST got through the rampant spike in omicron cases last month. In her opinion, going maskless this soon after that highly contagious variant is premature. She believes we need to wait longer to make sure we are out of the woods and that conditions need to be more stable for a longer period of time. Until then, she recommends those who are more susceptible in the IBD community continue to mask as an extra safety net.

“We are not out of the pandemic. Sure, there are less deaths and fewer severe cases, but people are still getting sick. We saw this happen when we let our guard down and delta hit…then omicron. When you are driving, you wear a seatbelt, follow the speed limit, try not to tailgate, and follow the rules of the road. These are all precautions to drive safely to your destination and avoid an accident. You don’t just do one thing to prevent a car accident. With Covid, we got the vaccines, we’re wearing masks, we’re limiting exposure to large crowds, and measuring risk versus benefit for each of our decisions. It’s not a pick and choose situation of how to keep ourselves and others out of harm’s way.”

Dr. Charabaty went on to say why get sick with something when we really don’t know the long-term effects. We already see Covid can cause a higher risk of depression, heart disease, and autoimmune issues.

“Wearing a mask is such a simple measure. If it adds a benefit, I don’t see why people are saying no to this. This virus can really change your body. Why not add another layer of protection to prevent illness? There are no downsides to wearing a mask, so why not wear it? When you are out and about there are people with weakened immune systems, cancer patients, organ transplant recipients, people on multiple IBD medications…why put these people at risk of infection? The more Covid is transmitted, the higher the risk of mutation, which will cause yet another spike. Each variant has been a result of people letting their guard down to soon with their decision making.”

Dr. Neilanjan Nandi, MD, FACP, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine, Gastroenterology, Penn Medicine, agrees that while case numbers going down is reassuring, that we are not out of the woods yet. To him, a mask is a sign of empathy for others.

“It’s not about us…whether it’s a caregiver or a family member or friend, this shouldn’t be looked at as an encroachment on our freedom, but rather about showing respect for those around us. The best thing we can do is mask up. Wearing a mask in public, indoor spaces is a smart move because you don’t know the immunization status or exposures of people you don’t know. If you are planning to see family or friends and know people’s vaccination status or if they’ve recently had Covid, you might feel more comfortable not wearing a mask.”

Pre-pandemic photo-May 2019 with Dr. Nandi at Digestive Disease Week in San Diego.

Dr. Nandi reiterated the fact that we’ve learned over the course of the last two years that most of our IBD medications don’t cause an increased risk and may even be protective. While this is reassuring, if you are on 20 mg of prednisone or higher, he highly recommends you mask up as you are more susceptible to illness.

Dr. Uma Mahadevan, MD, Professor of Medicine, and Director of the UCSF Colitis and Crohn’s Disease Center, says every region of the country is different and that your location should be taken into account.

“In the Bay Area we have a high vaccination rate and a low hospitalization rate. You also have to consider the patient’s personal risk and risk aversion.”

Here’s what Dr. Mahadevan tells her patients.

  1. Follow local guidelines for masking
  1. If you are vaccinated and boosted and are in a low-risk area with no mask mandate, its ok to not mask, particularly outdoors. Indoors in crowded shopping areas, etc., I would still consider masking. However, again, low risk patient in a low-risk region, it’s ok not to mask.
  2. For high-risk patients on steroids, double biologics, severely active disease, etc. I still recommend masking.

Dr. Miguel Regueiro, MD, Chair, Digestive Disease and Surgery Institute, Chair, Department of Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition, Cleveland Clinic, is hopeful we’re headed to what we see with influenza. While of course flu can still be serious and deadly, with enough people vaccinated and exposed to Covid, we can have herd immunity.

“We’re all learning as we go and there’s a lot of “grey” with nothing very “black or white.”  For now, I am recommending IBD patients continue to mask. For those who are immunocompromised, wear a mask in indoor spaces, especially crowded spaces such as airports. In outdoor spaces, it is less clear, but masks are probably a good idea when social distancing is not possible.”

Pre-pandemic photo-May 2019 with Dr. Regueiro at Digestive Disease Week in San Diego

Dr. Peter Higgins, MD, Ph.D., M.Sc., Director of the IBD Program at the University of Michigan, says if a person is unvaccinated, masks are a must. He encourages you to talk with your doctor about Evusheld, a monoclonal antibody against Covid-19 for immunocompromised people and those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.

“If the county you live in is below 10 cases per 100,000 people (CDC is saying 200/100,000 for the non-immunosuppressed), then you can consider not wearing a mask. But admittedly, this is an arbitrary number and 200 cases for every 100,000 people seems too high for the immunocompromised population. Especially if you are around kids, the elderly, or those who have not been able to be vaccinated, showing solidarity and wearing a mask is highly recommended.”

He explained that eating indoors with good ventilation is OK, but that is it hard to prove unless you have a CO2 monitor that can show a consistent CO2 ppm (parts per million) < 650. To give you an idea, Las Vegas casinos have good ventilation systems in place to keep restaurants free of smoke and those measure between 400-450 ppm. Dr. Higgins still recommends people do a rapid test within 12 hours of gathering with friends and family. He adds that as we learn more about long Covid and new variants guidance may once again shift.

Dr. Harry J. Thomas, MD,Austin Gastroenterology in Texas, also recommends patient who are immunocompromised (especially those on anti-TNF’s, prednisone, and other immunosuppressants) to mask up.

“I empathize with people who are worried about being judged by others and I recommend that they share — if they feel comfortable — that they (or their family member) have a chronic disease that places them at higher risk. I do feel that abandoning masks right now is premature, especially here in Texas as well as in other parts of the country with lower vaccination rates. I’m not sure if/when there will be another spike, but we still have about 2,000 COVID deaths each day which is really tragic and indicates that the pandemic is far from over.

My personal take

Personally, my husband and I still wear masks in public, indoor spaces. Our children who are in preschool are one of the few who are still wearing masks at their school. While I understand each person has the right to make their own personal decision for themselves and for their families, it’s disheartening and honestly disappointing to see the lack of care for others who are not fortunate to have the luxury of being healthy. I can’t tell you when I’ll feel safe enough to go into a grocery store or the mall without a mask on, it’s going to take time and assurance from my care team that I’m not making a rash decision that could put myself, my family, or even strangers at risk. It’s complicated. I get it.

My daughter at preschool this week. Still masked up.

When you’ve lived with a chronic illness like Crohn’s disease for nearly 17 years and been on immunosuppressive drugs ever since, your perspective shifts. You quickly realize you are not invincible. You recognize and empathize with those who have health struggles and depend on the greater good to make sound decisions. It’s a small act of kindness for the sake of health and safety. Talk with your care team about navigating this new normal. Don’t base your judgements on social media, the news, or your political beliefs. This is an ever-evolving discussion. It’s been a long two years. We’re all tired. But that doesn’t mean apathy is the answer. You may not care, but you are making a statement to those who are vulnerable when you go maskless indoors.

It’s ok to be unsure. It’s normal not to want to be judged or feel your kids will be outcasts if they’re the only ones at school masking. It’s understandable to feel a bit lost about what is best. But if a mask makes you feel comfortable, safer, healthier, you do you. Know that the medical community and so many others stand in solidarity with you.

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