As mask mandates and other Covid-19 restrictions are being lifted throughout the United States, CDC on Wednesday announced it may be updating its indoor masking recommendations soon, but some health experts think the move may be premature.
Prepare and adapt your Covid-19 communication strategy with external and internal stakeholders
Many areas in the United States have started lifting or easing Covid-19 restrictions. Officials in Philadelphia on Wednesday announced the vaccine mandate for restaurants in the city would be immediately lifted, and Disney World announced vaccinated guests would no longer be required to wear masks.
In Washington, the state's largest county announced Wednesday vaccination requirements for restaurants, bars, theaters, and gyms would be lifted starting March 1.
These recent announcements follow other local leaders easing Covid-19 restrictions earlier this month, including Los Angeles County, which lifted its indoor mask mandate on Feb. 16.
Similarly, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) earlier this month announced his state will end its school mask mandate on Feb. 28, while New York Gov. Kathy Hocul (D) announced the state would end its Covid-19 mask mandate for businesses, and Delaware Gov. John Carney (D) announced the state would end its indoor mask mandate on Feb. 11 and its school mask mandate on March 31.
On Wednesday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the agency is looking at metrics aside from Covid-19 case rates to determine future masking guidelines.
"We recognize the importance of not just cases ... but critically, medically severe disease that leads to hospitalizations. We must consider hospital capacity as an additional important barometer," Walensky said.
"We are assessing the most important factors based on where we are in the pandemic and will soon put guidance in place that is relevant and encourages prevention measures when they are most needed to protect public health and our hospitals," she added.
She suggested guidance changes would take into account measures of community transmission, as well as hospitalization rates or other gauges of illness severity, and hospital bed space.
The new recommendations could come within weeks, Roll Call reports, and Walensky said she believes new guidelines will "intersect" with changes states have made.
"We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when these metrics are better and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen," she said.
Walensky added that, if and when guidelines change, CDC will still recommend people who have been diagnosed with or exposed to Covid-19 or those who don't feel well still wear masks.
"As a result of all this progress and the tools we now have, we are moving to a time where Covid isn't a crisis but is something we can protect against and treat," said Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator.
Some members of the public, especially Democratic voters, and health experts have expressed concerns about states rescinding mask mandates. A poll from Politico and Morning Consult, which surveyed 2,005 registered voters on Feb. 12 and Feb. 13, found that 68% of Democrats think "it is too early for states to rescind mask mandates," compared with 42% of independents and 21% of Republicans.
Ezekiel Emanuel, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said he believes recent moves to rescind mask mandates have come too soon, adding that there's a difference between things "improving" and being "improved." For example, Emanuel noted that 10,000 people are still dying from Covid-19 each week, and that many hospitals throughout the country are at or near capacity.
Emanuel added that the Biden administration needs to give a "roadmap" to people to get an idea of when they can return to some semblance of normalcy.
"We do need more national, and more coherent, national guidance, and I think that is an imperative," Emanuel said. "One of the things you hear from everybody now, it's the communication around Covid has been less than optimal from the start."
"The public wants to know you're not just freelancing it," Emanuel added, "that you're really following important metrics that are meaningful and you have thresholds, so that people understand these are very well-informed decisions, and they themselves can look at the data on various websites."
However, Kathleen Sebelius, former HHS Secretary under President Barack Obama, said she agrees with recent moves to rescind mask mandates, noting that governors are often more able to understand their communities' needs than the federal government.
"I think what you've seen is governors moving out ahead of the CDC on eliminating mask guidance, and in many ways, it makes good sense," she said. "... Individual governors have the ability to look at the borders of their states and say, if we're a highly vaccinated, highly boosted state and some people are refusing to do that, people can make individual choices about their own health risk and wear a mask if they choose."
"It's where people are these days," she added. (Cohen, Roll Call, 2/16; Weixel, The Hill, 2/16; Burnett, Associated Press, 2/17; Montanaro, NPR, 2/17; Breslin, The Hill, 2/16)
As omicron continues to surge throughout the country, constantly evolving information and regulatory guidance has made the already challenging task of communicating with stakeholders more difficult. As a result, health care leaders must clearly and efficiently communicate changing guidance and information about the state of the pandemic, rising case numbers, vaccine and booster availability, emerging treatments, internal policies, and more, with community members, patients, and staff.
Use this resource with internal and external stakeholders to audit your omicron communication strategy and prepare your strategy moving forward.
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