Is that Neal? And is he… MASKLESS!?!?

Long time no talk! A bunch has happened, most of which has been chronicled on my Facebook and Instagram. The world has changed. I’ve changed. Mostly in mass due to coping via M&Ms. I’m mentally changed too. Let me explain…

Do you know the show, Impractical Jokers? They put each other up to really painful, uncomfortable situations—just for the yuks!

I think I’m on that show now.

I feel like my past 2 years have been one long episode. I don’t know who put me up to it, or who’s laughing, but this has been an awkward, stressful, painful time for me… mostly because of the constant fruitless conversations I find myself in.

How does a well-adjusted, thoroughly rested guy such as myself eliminate these feelings?  Keep doing the same thing to make it worse!

Let’s talk about masks. Yes, again.

Today you’ll see a glimmer of my new approach to pandemic misinformation: I don’t really care.

I don’t care to try to change anyone’s mind.  I can’t beat Joe Rogan or Mercola or Robert Kennedy or whomever. Neither can you.

Instead, I do care to help folks looking for support in their own daily struggles of the seemingly endless conflicts.

We can do that by addressing the larger ‘diseases’ that are being expressed through the ‘symptoms’ of mask, vaccine, or COVID debate.

In today’s article, I’ll answer a statement and two questions, spending most of the time working through the question that’s been asked of me a lot lately: “Is it ok to take off my mask?”

Statement 1: “Masks don’t work!”

I love hearing this. It’s the second best thing I heard in my numerous vaccine clinics, next to “the vaccines are free, you don’t need my insurance card.” 

I’ve found that there’s only one correct answer to the claim that masks don’t work: “How would we know?” 

You can add expletives to that as you see fit. I often do.

Here’s the reality to the anti-mask discussion, if our masking efforts were taken as an average: A portion of our population wore low-quality masks a small percentage of the time in select regions occasionally. 

The only people to wear masks for a consistent period of time were a relatively small population of people who were listening, employees of the places folks would throw hissy fits at, healthcare workers, and students—but only in areas of the country like mine.

Of course, quality masks work when used correctly.  No one wants to hear that, nor do they really care if you give them a study, meta-analysis, or whatever that illustrates that point.

Mask conversations were never about the science, they were about an identity—a story we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world around it.

For many, wearing masks would be an admission that COVID is 1. a problem that 2. we’re not handling correctly.

I agree: masks don’t work in America.

It’s not because masks are ineffective for disease transmission, of course, because that notion is preposterous. Even with our poor compliance, masks had a success rates factors higher than any supplement or horse paste-based intervention a charlatan peddled as a magic cure.

Masks “didn’t work” in America because so many of us have forgone the pursuit of a steadfast objective reality for an ideological one. Because that’s what the system wants.

Question 2: Should there be public health policies for masks?

“Yes!” is my answer. “Of course,” is my answer. My hot take on the subject is that I don’t care about that question, the hypothetical scenarios debated, or the false duality it creates. 

The only thing I know about this question is that it is draining to discuss it. 

On one ‘side’ are the Neals of the world saying “yes, it’s clear we need this policy.”  The retort being “Omicron spread despite mask mandates!” I’ll refer them back to my answer for Statement 1.

Wearing a bandana is great for robbing a train in 1863. If that’s the only semblance of a mask that you wear in a few of your errands around town only, then you are not understanding the purpose of the mandate or the larger conversation around infectious disease mitigation.

On the ‘other side’ of the mandate conversation is the libertarian in all of us saying “The government shouldn’t tell me what to do! It should be an individual’s choice.”

Many believe that mandates are inherently bad, and the individual’s choice and the “freedom” to express it regardless of consequences is the most sacred of institutions, blessed by the Flying Spaghetti Monster herself.

Understood. I appreciate it, and I value it.

My response is empathetic but realistic: I don’t live in make-believe land, I know that everything is bullshit, and I understand that people are… not always equipped to make proper decisions. 

A point of clarification, to make my position absolutely known: I agree, academically, and I would LOVE to live in this libertarian utopia.

Unfortunately, I’ve played Monopoly where folks cheat and lie, don’t understand the rules, or make up nonsense house rules that just keep the game going until you want to flip a table. And that’s with friends or family…

Our reality is filled with propaganda, misinformation, gullibility, cynicism, often unjustified trust in institutions, the inability to properly do risk analysis, and all the trappings of our consumerist, individualistic American culture.

It’s not possible for people to make the ‘best’ decisions for themselves about masks or pandemics or supplements or wellness or important things because our choices are an illusion built by a system set on profit that thrives on conflict.

We’re caught up in the debate about the “freedom” to make a decision, we’re missing the fact that the choice, the information, and even that “freedom” is a matrix inside of a matrix situation.

So, I don’t care about exerting energy around the question of mandates.  The sad reality is that we have no other choice. If mandates didn’t exist, the right choice, judged by the being the cheaper, safer, and most direct route to ending a widespread infectious disease, would not happen in this iteration of the multiverse. Because that’s what the system wants.

Question 2: “Is it OK to take my mask off?”

The COVID public health policies were weakly enforced and poorly complied with for various reasons, and the pandemic moved to an individual struggle rather quickly after vaccinations were in arms last June.

“So,” folks ask, “why would I want to take away a big source of protection?”

On the polar end of the anti-mask crowd are those still hiding in their closets—unnecessarily—since April 2020. I’m not talking about those with contraindications to protections, those vulnerable/compromised, or those who must enact tight mitigation measures. I’m talking about people hyped up by their media of choice to the other extreme of the spectrum.

There is a part of the system that thrives off both ends of this spectrum of people, and we must work to be more grounded and reasonable, moving towards the middle to starve this manipulative machine.

Another clarification: it is NOT OK for everyone to go maskless. There is no blanket doctrine here.

First off, we must remember, the mandates meant that all people 2 years and older had to wear masks in public spaces and in private businesses.

Removing the mandate is not equivalent to removing all mask requirements.

If you are unvaccinated, have been in close contact with a known positive, or are in isolation or quarantine, then YOU ARE THE ONES WHO NEED THE DANG MASKS.

If you are vulnerable, masks are still strongly recommended.

Everyone else? If transmission in the community is low, then that’s up to you.

I’ve taken my mask off very recently.  This is in stark contrast to three weeks ago, when I was wearing a KN95 outside at Universal Studios. Why the change in heart? Why no mask? Here’s why:

1. First and foremost, I’m trying to lead by example. 

In my article, Now Is The New New Normal, I said our future is dependent upon our ability to learn to live in surges and valleys.

My mask isn’t off forever; I take my mask off now because I know it’s probably coming back on, and I will lead or advise others to don that thing earlier than nearly everyone else.

I also try to help those resistant to removing of this staple of our modern fashion to know that it is OK to do so if the situation is right. I did it prior to delta and now with omicron.

2. My risk tolerance is now higher. 

Previously, I had many reasons to stay masked. Not so much anymore.

As of now:

  • All my kids are vaccinated. 
  • All adults in my life are boosted. 
  • Omicron, statistically, will be uneventful in any of us if we do get it BECAUSE of our vaccines
  • I’ve got no upcoming trips. 

The travel concerns are now the biggest mask-motivator for me in this valley after omicron,  because of vaccines and my general tight implementation of mitigation strategies.

If I’m spending the money needed to ship 6 people internationally, you bet I’m not only going to wear strong masks all the time, I’m also going to reduce contact with friends and family.

I want to make sure that I can not only go, but that I don’t have to isolate in a horrible hospital in a foreign country and not be able to return.

When I travel, we wear N95s in the airport, airplane, taxis, and in any crowded indoor area on the trip. When outside but near lots of people, we wear KN95s. On the way home, with no upcoming travel, we’ll relax our mask-wearing to N95s in the plane only, and KN95s the rest of the time.

3. Masks are off in school.

I’m more likely to catch COVID through one or more of my four kids than I will being cautious at work.

I can’t win that fight, so I might as well enjoy not smelling my own breath for a bit.

4. I have access to tests. 

I’ve taken full advantage of my insurance’s offer for free tests, and we get as many as we can as often as we can. 

Getting 8 tests monthly per person allows us to have proper surveillance of COVID in our own houses.

If someone has the sniffles, we test. If we’re planning on visiting someone high risk in a week, we test 5 days prior. If we go on a vacation, get home, and a few days later we feel like crap due to alcohol and sugar withdrawal, we test. Because those same symptoms overlap with COVID.

If you need assistance taking advantage of this benefit (for anyone who is NOT on Medicare B or D), don’t hesitate to reach out.

The inexpensive or free tests are a real game-changer.

Honorable Mention: It’s a huge fight. 

I’ve dropped mask requirements in-store because trying to enforce our space as a healthcare facility where masks are therefore required would be a challenge after omicron—even here in Woodstock.

I’m tired, as I’m sure you all are.

What does the system want the most?  That fatigue.  So, take your breather and let’s get back at it. 

Masks Optional. Toothbrushes, Floss, and Tissues Required.

Sticking specifically to the mask conversation and not COVID as a whole or how we’re so very poorly Coping with COVID, all you need to know is based on this chart:

Quite frankly I’m sick of pouring good, clean water into rusty buckets with holes in them. I’m not participating in an evil-system-structured back-and-forth.  It’s draining, and I won’t allow the system to achieve it’s ultimate goal: having well-intended people give up from fatigue.

Instead, we elevate the conversation, focusing on what matters—our own safety and our mental well being.

If you use my personal risk analysis as a guide for your mask-on, mask-off decisions, you’ll be more than fine. 

If your masks are good quality (N95s are available for free at most pharmacies!) and you know WHEN to wear them (i.e. when you’ll be around people with no or poor masks in a tight space for any length of time), you’ll have little to worry about… even if your risk tolerance is a bit less than mine.

GOOD MASKS WORK. Especially when people actually wear them when they’re supposed to. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Just trying to keep it real…

Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth

Dr. Neal Smoller, Holistic Pharmacist

About Neal Smoller

Dr. Neal Smoller, PharmD, is a licensed pharmacist: and owner of Village Apothecary, an independent pharmacy in the most famous small town in America—Woodstock, NY. He’s also the host of the popular wellness podcast, The Big Mouth Pharmacist.”

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