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November 23, 2021

Why it's still too soon to ditch face masks

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    Although some areas have begun loosening their Covid-19 mask mandates, many infectious disease experts argue that these decisions are "premature"—especially as cases rise and more people gather for the upcoming holidays.

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    Some areas begin loosening Covid-19 mask restrictions

    Currently, CDC recommends people wear masks in public indoor spaces in locations where viral transmission is "substantial or high"—a threshold that around 85% of U.S. counties meet.

    According to the New York Times, research has shown face masks are an effective public health intervention against the coronavirus. For instance, a study published in the British Medical Journal found that wearing masks reduced the incidence of new Covid-19 infections by 53%. Real world research of statewide and schoolwide mask mandates also suggest they reduce transmission of the virus.

    "There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that masks help slow transmission," said Linsey Marr, an expert in airborne viruses at Virginia Tech.

    However, "mask mandates were never intended to last forever," the Times reports, and some jurisdictions have either loosened mask restrictions or plan to loosen them in the future.

    For example, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser last week announced that masks would no longer be required in select indoor public spaces, such as private businesses. "This does not mean that everyone needs to stop wearing their masks," Bowser explained. "But it does mean that we are shifting the government's response to providing you risk-based information.”

    And some places, such as New York City and New Jersey, are currently considering ways to lift school mask mandates, the Times reports. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said he wanted to be able to loosen mask restrictions in schools "sooner than later" and suggested that the requirement would be lifted in phases, beginning with high schools.

    Most experts continue to support mask mandates

    For now, most infectious disease and public health experts recommend against lifting mask mandates—especially during the winter when people are spending more time indoors or traveling.

    "Now is not the time that I would reduce mask mandates," said Stephen Luby, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist at Stanford University.

    Separately, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said people should continue to wear masks in public indoor places, such as grocery stores, although fully vaccinated people could forgo masks during family gatherings.

    At the same time, as Covid-19 case rates continue to rise across the country, some areas are encouraging their residents to begin masking again. For example, Michigan last week issued an advisory recommending individuals ages two and older wear a mask at indoor gatherings regardless of vaccination status. The state on Thursday had a seven-day Covid-19 case rate of 589.3 cases per 100,000, Axios reports—the highest since the beginning of the pandemic.

    "Cases are starting to rise again, and we have not yet conquered this virus," said Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "We may be tired of Covid and Covid restrictions and public health measures, but this virus is certainly not done with us yet."

    David Dowdy, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said he expects to see Covid-19 cases increase during the winter before it eventually becomes an endemic disease.

    "We've come this far. It probably is not too difficult to keep our guard up for a couple more months," Dowdy added. "But the flip side of that is we've been doing this for a really long time and people are very tired."

    Some experts said masking requirements could potentially be loosened early next year after the winter holidays have passed and more children have been fully vaccinated, the Times reports. "Maybe in February, we can say goodbye to masks," said Seema Lakdawala, a respiratory virus expert at the University of Pittsburgh.

    However, other experts said a more sustained reduction in Covid-19 cases and deaths was needed before loosening mask requirements could be considered. "We're still seeing 1,000 people dying a day from this virus," Rimoin said. “It's not just a matter of comfort and ease—I mean, this is a matter of life or death for many people." (Anthes, New York Times, 11/20; Gomez, Kaiser Health News, 11/22; Frazier, Axios, 11/20; Axios, 11/21)

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