As Covid-19 cases continue to rise throughout the United States, federal officials on Wednesday warned that a third of Americans live in areas where indoor mask-wearing is recommended in public spaces due to high case transmission. But amid the warnings from health officials, many local leaders are hesitant to reinstate mask mandates.
Health officials warn of Covid-19 surge
During a joint press briefing between CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, White House Covid-19 coordinator Ashish Jha, and President Joe Biden's chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci, Walensky noted that Covid-19 cases had increased 26% in the past week, and that the seven-day average of Covid-19 hospitalizations had risen 19% over the previous week.
Walensky also said that more than 32% of Americans currently live in an area with medium or high levels of coronavirus transmission—up from 24% the previous week—and urged local leaders "to encourage the use of prevention strategies like masking in public indoor settings and increasing access to testing and treatment for individuals."
During the briefing, Jha also warned that unless Congress provides additional funding for more Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, there would be an "unnecessary loss of life" in the fall and winter.
According to Jha, the United States is falling behind the rest of the world in purchasing supplies for the next set of Covid-19 vaccines, and that the manufacturing of at-home Covid-19 tests is slowing down as demand is dropping.
Many domestic test manufacturers are shutting down lines, laying off employees, and will soon start selling equipment and preparing to stop manufacturing tests entirely, Jha said. This could leave the United States reliant on other countries for supplies, which could lead to shortages during a surge, he warned.
Will mask mandates make a return?
In April, Philadelphia became the first major city to reinstate an indoor mask mandate after most Covid-19 precautions had been lifted nationwide. However, it rescinded the mandate just days later, citing "decreasing hospitalizations and a leveling of case counts."
Now, despite recent warnings from federal health officials, some local leaders are hesitant to reinstate mask mandates in their communities.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams said he doesn't intend to implement a mask mandate unless hospitals reach a "state of emergency" or are trending in that direction. "I'm proud of what we are doing and how we are not allowing Covid to outsmart us," he said, adding that the city is "staying prepared and not panicking."
"If every variant that comes, we move into shutdown thoughts, we move into panicking, we're not going to function as a city," Adams said.
New York health commissioner Ashwin Vasan noted that a large portion of the city is vaccinated and booster numbers are going up, adding that New York City has "a strong mask culture … where people are taking those precautions on subways and indoor settings."
In Massachusetts, a group of public health leaders, community organizers, and infectious disease doctors sent a request on Wednesday to Gov. Charlie Baker (R) requesting his administration reinstate mask mandates in public schools and on transportation, and that the administration issue an "immediate advisory" recommending mask use in public spaces.
However, Baker said he's not planning on reinstating a mask mandate. "We believe that the best thing to do at this point is to make clear to people that vaccines work," he said. "There are treatments that now work as well."
Baker added that his administration "certainly welcome[s] people to wear masks, if they take care of a loved one who's got comorbidities or is immunocompromised or if they’re dealing with somebody who's over the age of 65 or 70." (LaFraniere et al., New York Times, 5/198; Miller/Stobbe, Associated Press, 5/18; Abutaleb, Washington Post, 5/18; Alsharif, CNN, 5/18; Lazar, Boston Globe, 5/18; Fitzsimmons, New York Times, 5/19; Rubinkam, Associated Press, 4/21)