Analysis & Opinions - The Washington Post

Mask Mandates Are Falling Prematurely. We Can Still Keep People Safe.

| Feb. 14, 2022

Now’s the time to lean on other tools to reduce the spread of the virus.

A growing number of states that had adopted strict mitigation measures during the omicron surge have announced plans to lift indoor mask mandates, including in schools. Citing declining case counts and hospitalizations, governors in California, New York, New Jersey and elsewhere say they intend to leave the question of whether to require face coverings up to local governments.

While many of us in the public health community think it’s premature for this, with hospitals still stretched and deaths hovering around 2,500 a day, it’s clear many Americans are ready to move on. In a country as diverse as the United States, where approaches to covid-19 have differed dramatically based on geography and political affiliation, there’s merit to leaving it up to local officials to decide what’s best for their communities. Now is the time to take a nuanced approach and lean on the other tools at our disposal to slow the spread of the coronavirus — even without masks.

As local officials in states where mask mandates are falling contemplate whether to lift them, part of the calculation will be epidemiological: how much virus is circulating in the community, hospital capacity, and county and school-level vaccination rates. But they will also have to take into consideration access. Do schools have a cache of high-quality masks for those who want them, and sufficient testing supplies? Are effective anti-viral therapeutics available for those at high risk of severe outcomes — a particular challenge since allocation of antivirals to states is still limited?

In addition, as we have witnessed over the last two years, the virus is not the great equalizer. Certain populations, such as communities of color, not only have borne the disproportionate impact of the death and severe disease, they also have less access to mitigation measures such as air filtration and rapid tests. When thinking about the impact of lifting mask mandates, it’s not enough to consider the effect on the average person; it matters how these decisions resonate in the most vulnerable communities.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Madad, Syra and Saad B. Omer.“Mask Mandates Are Falling Prematurely. We Can Still Keep People Safe..” The Washington Post, February 14, 2022.