February 10, 2022 – The number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States has fallen by nearly two-thirds from just a few weeks ago, and the drop has sparked heated conversations across the United States about when and if mask mandates should stop.
On Monday, the governors of four states — Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon — said they would end mandatory masking in schools by the end of February or March. Pennsylvania decided to scrap its statewide mandate last month.
In Illinois, Governor JB Pritzker is fighting in court to keep his mask mandate for schools in place. New York Governor Kathy Hochul of New York authorized the expiration Thursday of a statewide mask or proof of vaccination warrant for all indoor public places.
Some doctors say now is the right time and adults and children have endured the mandates long enough and the nation needs to get used to living with COVID-19 instead of fighting it every day.
But the CDC disagrees.
During a White House briefing on Wednesday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said the agency still recommends wearing masks indoors in public places.
“We are working to follow the trends at the moment. What I will say, however, is that our hospitalizations are still high, our death rates are still high…While we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not we’re not there yet,” she said,
Not everyone is on board.
Leana Wen, MD, an emergency physician and professor of public health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., tweeted Wednesday that “the CDC needs to change its guidance on the school mask mandate, as soon as possible. Pandemic restrictions were always meant to be temporary – it needs to be a clear, realistic exit ramp that takes into account the widespread availability of vaccines for ages 5+.”
Nicole Saphier, MD, radiologist and director of breast imaging at Memorial Sloan Kettering in Monmouth, NJ, tweeted“Mask and vaccine mandates do far more harm than good. It’s time to ‘let’ anyone who wants to get out of the pandemic do it. I was criticized for saying that when Omicron started. Now I doubled as millions more gained natural immunity and were boosted.”
In an interview, Saphier says that “parents and children have been traumatized by fear-based tactics that manipulate data.”
“Ultimately, there is no good quality data showing that cloth masks in schools provide any benefit,” she says. “The science on masks has not changed. There has never been reliable data supporting mask mandates in schools to mitigate low risk in the lowest-risk population.”
What has changed, she says, “is that there is now a milder variant circulating, and the majority of children have some level of vaccine, natural or hybrid immunity.”
Amesh Adalja, MD, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, said schools must have ways out of COVID-19 mitigation.
“This is especially the case as more people are vaccinated, antivirals are available and rapid tests are becoming more ubiquitous,” he says. “Children are at the lowest risk of serious illness. In Europe and the UK, school masking is not the norm.”
Adalja says that eventually COVID-19 will be treated like other respiratory infections without specific mitigations, as people will get used to the fact that “it will always be with us and much more docile due to our immunity and our medical countermeasures”.
On whether dropping masks now may make it more difficult to mask up again if there is another outbreak down the road, Adalja says: “When the likelihood of serious illness is significantly reduced, in Due to a high degree of immunity and the availability of antivirals, masks are not of equal importance.
“For those who wish to wear masks, no one stops them, and one-way masking works,” he says. “There will never be a time when there isn’t some level of circulation of COVID-19.”
The timing is not good
Other experts agree with the CDC, saying it’s not time and that abandoning the warrants would be unwise.
Maxine Dexter, MD, Oregon State Representative, tweeted, “I understand (VERY clearly) that people are done with the mask mandates. I don’t have control over making a decision on when this will end. What I do know is that I just spending the weekend in intensive care caring for very sick people, most with COVID and others being admitted in. It’s not over.
Mercedes R. Carnethon, MD, of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, says mask mandates “shouldn’t be driven by impatience or politics.”
Rather, she says, the reassessment should be based on metrics, including community spread rates, the proportion of the community vaccinated and hospital capacity in a given area.
She says now is not the time to remove masking requirements from schools.
“COVID-19 hospitalization rates remain high and our experience over the past 2 months with Omicron demonstrates that it can even evade our vaccine protection,” she says. “Although most cases are mild, especially in children, the effects are still substantial for members of the community who contract the disease.”
Carnethon noted that vaccination rates are low among 5 to 11 year olds and even among 12 to 17 year olds.
“We are nowhere near where we need to be to be able to rely solely on vaccination to stop transmission,” she says.
Stanley Weiss, MD, professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health in Newark, NJ, says the rush to drop the mask mandate comes in part from pressure on politicians from a shocked public COVID-19 fatigue and a public frustrated with changing guidelines as scientific information evolves.
He says the decision should be based on science and science says it’s too early to end warrants.
“There’s hope in thinking it’s gone, when that’s clearly not true,” Weiss said. “In places like New Jersey, new cases have gone down, but the number of clusters of cases in schools had not yet gone down. »
Lindsay Kalter contributed additional reporting for this story.