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Lifting mask mandates is 'reasonable,' US health experts say, but they're not taking off their own masks

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Demonstrators participate in a Defeat the Mandates march in Washington, DC, on January 23, 2022.
  • Several US states are lifting mask mandates as Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations decline.
  • Three experts called the relaxed restrictions "reasonable," but they're still masking in public.
  • One expert said it's too soon to roll back mandates, since young kids aren't vaccine-eligible yet. 
  • For more stories visit www.BusinessInsider.co.za

Public-health experts aren't removing their masks anytime soon, but some say it's fine for states to relax mandates on a case-by-case basis.

Several US states announced changes to their mask requirements this month amid a steep drop-off in Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations. California's indoor mask requirement will expire for vaccinated people next week, while New York businesses no longer require masks indoors as of Thursday. Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Oregon also plan to relax mask restrictions in the coming month or so.

Multiple public-health experts told Insider that lifting mask mandates was "reasonable" in areas where vaccination rates are relatively high and Covid-19 case and hospitalisation rates are relatively low. But one expert cautioned that US states haven't reached that point yet.

For now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend lifting indoor mask mandates. According to CDC guidance, vaccinated people can remove their masks in public indoor settings if their county has fewer than 50 new Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people, or test positivity rates below 8%. Few US counties meet that criteria right now.

But masks may not be necessary in all indoor settings, given that Omicron cases seem milder than past variants and vaccines continue to protect against severe disease, experts said.

"I'm not very concerned about mild infections," Emily Gurley, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Insider. "If there are folks out there still thinking there is a world where we stop transmission, that's a problem," she said, adding, "That door closed a long time ago."

Other experts recommended stricter mandates to protect the most vulnerable, including immunocompromised people and young kids who aren't vaccine-eligible yet. They also worried about a fresh surge of Covid-19 cases if states peel back restrictions too soon.

"Put as many guardrails as you can in place and recognise people are still going to drive their car, but at least let's not have them careen over the edge. As best we can, let's try to ensure a safe ride," Ingrid Katz, an associate faculty director at the Harvard Global Health Institute, told Insider.

How do states know when to pull back?

Shoppers pass a sign outside a Tesco, one of Britain's largest and most popular supermarkets, on July 28, 2021, in Leeds, United Kingdom.

Experts agreed there may be exceptions to the CDC guidance, depending on how much the virus is spreading or claiming lives in an individual city or state. 

Katz said she'd like to see vaccination rates above 80-85% or test positivity rates below 5% before states roll back mask restrictions. New York's average test positivity rate is around 4% as of Wednesday, suggesting very low transmission there. States with vaccination rates between 70-79%, or test positivity rates between 8-10%, might consider requiring masks in high-risk situations, like clubs or indoor concerts, Katz said.

Experts also noted that mask mandates should be allowed to come and go as cases rise and fall.

"We have to be prepared to pivot," Katz said, adding, "If we get another variant coming at us in a couple months that is really infectious, then people have to be willing to re-mask." 

Experts are still masking up themselves

Registered nurse Akiko Gordon work in the ICU with a COVID-19 patient at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Los Angeles, California, on December 31, 2021.

Relaxed mandates don't mean people won't or can't wear masks, experts added. N95 and KF94 masks, in particular, are powerful tools for preventing infection.

"If you're moving to that level of mask, you can protect yourself regardless of what others are doing," Gurley said.

Several experts told Insider they plan to keep their masks on, even if mandates are lifted in their state. 

"I'm going to keep wearing masks indoors and in crowded spaces for the foreseeable future and I'd encourage others to as well," Parker said. 

Katz said she's comfortable being outdoors without masks, but she's avoiding indoor dining and masking up in museums. Vivek Cherian, a Chicago-based internal-medicine physician, said his family will continue to wear masks, regardless of the restrictions in his state.

"From a pure public-health standpoint, the answer would be: Everyone should be wearing masks until close to 100% of the population is vaccinated, but that's not practical and that's never going to happen," Cherian added.

Some experts are holding out for higher vaccination rates 

Watson, a therapy dog with the Pawtucket police department, keeps a child company as she receives her COVID-19 vaccine in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, on December 7, 2021.

Some experts remain adamant that science hasn't caught up to the public desire to return to normal.

"There is quite a bit of political pressure to move on and I think this is what is driving the move to drop mask mandates," Daniel Parker, an assistant professor of population health and disease prevention at UCI Health, told Insider.

He's holding out for higher vaccination rates before entertaining the idea of broadly relaxing mandates.

"We should at least wait until all age groups have high vaccine coverage, and for transmission to be lower than it is now," Parker said.

Higher vaccination rates would also help protect immunocompromised people, for whom even a fourth vaccine dose might not ward off severe disease. 

Part of the confusion around mandates, Gurley said, is that public-health experts aren't united on what outcome they're trying to achieve.

"What is our public health goal? What are we trying to do?" she asked. "Once we agree on that, then you can have strategies of how you get there. The reason these decisions are controversial is because there's no guiding principle."

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