Masks or No Masks?

Two firefighters wearing their masks during an assignment in 2020.

By Dr. Jennifer Symonds

Fire and Aviation Management Medical Officer

U.S. Forest Service

It’s 2021. You are vaccinated. Should you still wear a mask on assignments? How about those of you who have not been vaccinated. What are the rules on wearing masks for the unvaccinated?

First, Let’s Quickly Recap Last Year

COVID-19 was rampant and everyone in fire was instructed to wear a mask unless you were working on the fireline. The mitigations put in place last year for COVID-19 in the fire realm were not specific for COVID-19. They are basic infectious disease mitigations. These mitigations not only prevented the spread of COVID-19 but also prevented innumerable cases of camp crud—leaving our fire personnel healthier throughout the year.

In 2020, largely because of adhering to the infectious disease mitigations to include wearing masks, when we reached October we were amazed at our good health that occurred throughout the summer and early fall. Hotshot crews specifically stated they were the healthiest they had ever been through their fire careers. Camp crud was almost non-existent.

Now Let’s Fast Forward to This Summer

We are currently at Planning Level 4—three weeks earlier than the norm. We are stretched thin on available crews as well as IMT members. We remain fatigued from last year dealing with COVID-19 interspersed with our lives and the unbelievable fire conditions and activity that lingered for months. And our summer has just begun. We must therefore already be on our game again.

As the western fire activity picks up, the southern states are now seeing increasing numbers of cases of RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) in kids. This virus had practically disappeared last year with the onset of wearing masks. Colds and influenza could now possibly follow. Could our camp crud occurrence be far behind?

Oh, and let’s not forget, COVID-19 now persists with new variants entering the scene.

So, What About Masks and Other Infectious Disease Mitigations?

This year, if you are vaccinated, the CDC says you don’t need to wear a mask—with a few exceptions. If you have not been vaccinated, you should still be wearing a mask and following the same mitigations regarding COVID-19 as last year.

What’s the Advice of the Medical Experts in Wildland Fire?

Those who are not vaccinated, or not fully vaccinated, are expected to follow the same mitigations as last year regarding COVID-19. Those fully vaccinated have been given the guidance that they do not need to wear masks unless on public transportation or in a medical facility, which includes the Medical Unit Leader’s tent.

Do you want to be as healthy as you were last year at fire camp? Then I encourage you to continue wearing a mask when around others, physically distancing yourself from others as best you can, and washing your hands frequently.

These prevention mitigations are low-hanging fruit that provide a reward that we all want:

A healthier you.

3 thoughts on “Masks or No Masks?

  1. I understand we have to follow policy but It is an unnecessary policy to require unvaccinated people to wear a mask unless they are coughing. Unvaccinated unmasked people are not a risk to vaccinated people.

    • Unvaccinated, unmasked people are not a risk to MOST vaccinated people. There is a small percentage of vaccinated individuals that the vaccine is not effective for, and there are vaccinated individuals that have medical conditions/treatments that cause immunocompromise that may still have some susceptibility to acquiring the virus and having a bad outcome. You are masking to protect those individuals as well as those unvaccinated.

  2. One has to be careful and drill down on the advice. In the field working vs camp and even what position in the camp. A dirty, continually reused mask that was designed for one time use could be an issue. Stated another way, if you can keep a few feet apart, you may be better off not putting on the mask that has been in and out of your pocket for the last “X” number of days.

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