Covid-19 surges nationwide putting mask mandates back on the table

Hospitalizations increasing throughout the nation
Originally Published: 24 JUL 21 02:47 ET
Updated: 24 JUL 21 13:44 ET

(CNN) — While the need for mask wearing never fully dissipated during the pandemic, guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in May that removed restrictions for vaccinated individuals was a welcome harbinger of a possible return to normalcy.

Now, with Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations increasing throughout the nation, safety precautions such as mask mandates are once again under consideration.

Former US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said on Friday that the CDC needs to clarify its messaging to get Americans back on board with stemming the rising tide of infections.

The CDC’s decision “was putting trust in the American people to really do the right thing, but unfortunately people chose to go out and pull their mask off, whether they were vaccinated or not,” Adams told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

“We’ve got to trust our health officials to give the best advice they can at the time, and the CDC gave the best advice they could at the time,” he added. “But guess what? That was pre-Delta surge. The Delta variant is changing things.”

The Delta variant, believed to be more transmittable and dangerous, accounted for an estimated 83% of coronavirus cases in the US for the two weeks ending July 17, according to data from the CDC — a substantial rise from negligible numbers in early May.

Cases are rising sharply. The US averaged more than 49,300 new Covid-19 cases a day over the week ending Friday — a 48% jump from the week prior, and more than four times the lowest average of 2021 (11,299 on June 22), according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Every state reported more cases in the week ending Friday than they did the week before, Johns Hopkins figures show.

Health experts have repeatedly pointed to preemptive vaccination as the best way to get ahead of surges due to their proven efficacy, but CDC data Friday showed that the rate of vaccinations continues to slow. The daily average of people becoming fully vaccinated is the lowest it’s been since the end of January, when the US was just beginning to ramp up its vaccination drive.

Thirty states have yet to fully vaccinate at least half of their residents, with Alabama and Mississippi at less than 35% fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday called out “the unvaccinated folks” for the rise in Covid-19 cases. “Folks are supposed to have common sense. But it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down,” she told reporters in Birmingham.

With vaccination numbers lagging, officials say more countermeasures against Covid-19 are likely needed.

Guidance on mask wearing from the CDC has not changed, but CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Thursday localities may want to make their own call.

“Communities and individuals need to make the decisions that are right for them based on what’s going on in their local areas,” she said. “So if you’re an area that has a high case rate and low rates of vaccination where Delta cases are rising, you should certainly be wearing a mask if you are unvaccinated.”

Mask mandates are met with opposition

Amid the rising numbers of infections, some state and local leaders are now recommending that masks to be worn indoors even by those who are vaccinated.

Health officials in Seattle and King County in Washington noted Friday that the Delta variant’s prevalence in the US was 1.4% on May 13 when the CDC lifted mask requirements for vaccinated people. Right now, Delta makes up 56% of King County’s known infections and the figure is expected to rise.

“I know this is frustrating and maybe disappointing to many, it certainly is to me,” Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, health officer for the Seattle and King County public health department said Friday.

“And I acknowledged that the change in communication,” he said, “has been a real problem nationally, but we in public health have an obligation to be realistic about the changing situation and provide the best guidance possible.”

Officials in St. Louis, Missouri, have gone one step further by instituting an indoor mask mandate at public settings beginning on Monday, joining Los Angeles County as one of the first areas in the country to reinstate such measures.

Missouri has one of the highest rates of average new daily cases per capita, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

“The new rule will require everyone age five and over, including those who are vaccinated, to wear a mask. Wearing masks outdoors, especially in group settings, will be strongly encouraged,” according to a statement from the mayor’s office. Exceptions are included for those seated and eating at bars and restaurants.

“We’ve lost more than 500 St. Louisans to Covid-19, and if our region doesn’t work together to protect one another, we could see spikes that overwhelm our hospital and public health systems,” said Dr. Fredrick Echols, acting director of health for the City of St. Louis.

However, Missouri State Attorney General Eric Schmitt said on Friday that he will be going to court to stop the requirement.

“The citizens of St. Louis and St. Louis County are not subjects — they are free people. As their Attorney General I’ll be filing suit Monday to stop this insanity,” Schmitt said in a statement on Twitter.

Officials elsewhere are also pushing back against proposed indoor mandates. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey encouraged people in his state to get the vaccine, thanking “the miracle of modern science” but reiterated that he will not allow vaccine or mask mandates.

In Texas, Austin Mayor Steve Adler says if he could “order all children and teachers to mask without ending up in court” he “would do it in a heartbeat,” as Austin Public Health reported the daily average number of Covid-19 hospitalizations has more than tripled since July 4.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, however, issued an executive order in May prohibiting state governmental entities such as counties from requiring mask-wearing.

Safety restrictions are instituted for new school year

With the new school year around the corner — and vaccine access only available to those over the age of 12 — some districts are preparing for a return to classes with mask mandates.

Washington DC Public Schools, Boston Public Schools, and Wisconsin’s Madison Metropolitan School District are among those that recently announced the requiring of masks worn by students and staff inside school buildings.

Yet other locales, such as Texas and Iowa, have prevented officials from exercising local control by requiring masks.

Last week, California had announced strict statewide measures for masks in classrooms, yet changed its stance hours later and allowed for local decision-making.

“California’s school guidance will be clarified regarding masking enforcement, recognizing local schools’ experience in keeping students and educators safe while ensuring schools fully reopen for in-person instruction,” read the update, which was released via a California Department of Public Health tweet.

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