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Opinion Don’t forget your mask this pandemic summer

A man wears a mask as he rides on the open deck of a tourist bus in Paris on July 1. (AFP via Getty Images)

President Biden tested positive for the coronavirus — and so have millions more. A full-on coronavirus wave is sweeping across the United States and much of the world, driven by the BA.5 subvariant, which hardly existed in April. This does not call for panic — the president appears to have mild symptoms — but it is a reminder to be cautious, especially indoors with crowds. Your face mask is your friend, and your booster is your life jacket. It is that kind of summer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that models show the BA.5 subvariant and its cousin, BA.4, both more transmissible and better at immune escape than the earlier omicron variants, now comprise about 90 percent of the cases in the United States. Their explosive growth in the past 2½ months — from zero to prevalence — is testament to the power of mutations that make them more adept at entering human cells and escaping antibodies. It’s still not clear whether the new subvariants will cause more severe disease, but infections are undeniably on the rise. The seven-day U.S. average of daily new cases reported to the CDC is now 125,827, or five times higher than what it was in March. So many home rapid tests are being done these days, the real total is probably seven times more. Using the CDC’s measure of community risk — based largely on hospitalization admissions and intensive care unit beds — 61 percent of the U.S. population lives in counties that are now at high levels, nearly double that of two weeks earlier. There is a lot of virus circulating.

By now, reaching for that face mask ought to be second nature for indoor locations with a lot of people — where the virus can hang in the air and spread. Good-quality face masks are plentiful and cheap. No one likes them, but now is not the time to abandon their use. Los Angeles is considering bringing back a mask mandate for indoor spaces on July 29 if the community levels remain high, as measured by the CDC. Likewise, a number of national parks, including Denali, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, all recently reinstated indoor masking requirements. Mandates are hard to enforce these days amid public fatigue and weariness, but if the government doesn’t mandate a mask, it still makes good sense to protect yourself — and everyone around you.

Far too few have gotten booster shots that are widely available and free. Less than half the eligible population (over 5 years old) has a dose of the first booster, according to the CDC, and less than a third of those eligible (over 50 years old) has the second. Summer brings one significant break — fresh air. Good ventilation and filtration have proved to be an excellent tool to fight viral transmission. Throw open the windows.

It’s human nature to wish for better times. But the pandemic reality is still with us. The best and safest kind of normal is to be vigilant about the reality of virus levels, and use the available tools to mitigate them.

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Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, D.C. affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).