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  • As coronavirus cases continue to drop, multiple states have ended statewide or school mask mandates.
  • Officials in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, and several other states announced plans to end indoor mask mandates in the coming weeks.
  • Some public health officials think that any decision about ending mask policies should take into account what’s happening at the local level.

As the Omicron wave begins to weaken in many parts of the country, officials in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, and several other states have announced plans to end indoor mask mandates in the coming weeks.

Even Nevada, which had a data-driven mask policy tied to federal guidance, dropped its mask mandate, effective immediately.

Some states, such as Massachusetts and New Jersey, will be dropping school mask mandates.

Many of these states had more strict mask rules. But some states never had a mask mandate during the pandemic, with Florida, Texas, and a few others also actively banning local mandates.

Some public health officials think that any decision about ending mask policies should take into account what’s happening at the local level.

“As we have seen throughout the pandemic, new [coronavirus] cases and test positivity rates vary significantly from region to region, as do vaccination and booster rates,” said Dr. Tammy Lundstrom, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at Trinity Health. “Decisions to ease restrictions should be based on determinations of these local factors.”

Other experts have called for decisions about mask policies — now and going forward — to be linked to data such as levels of community transmission, vaccination rates, hospital capacity, and coronavirus variants that are circulating.

“I think it is misguided to drop [mask] policies in response to political pressure without a policy framework to guide decisions moving forward,” said Anne Sosin, MPH, a policy fellow at Dartmouth College’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), whose guidance Nevada used for its now-expired mask policy, has not yet changed its position on masks.

CDC director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky said on Feb. 9 that the agency was looking at updating its recommendations on masking, but its current guidance “meets the moment that we’re in.”

“Our hospitalizations are still high, our death rates are still high,” she said during a White House COVID-19 response team media briefing. “So … as we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet.”

While coronavirus cases continue to decline in most parts of the country, the overall daily average cases are still around the peak seen last January, according to The New York Times COVID tracker.

In addition, the daily average for hospitalizations exceeds 103,000, and the average daily deaths exceed 2,500.

It will take another couple of weeks to know the impact that the ending of mask mandates has on coronavirus cases.

The CDC still advises people 2 years and older who are not up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines to wear a mask while indoors in public.

In addition, the agency says people who are up to date should wear a mask indoors in public in areas with substantial or high transmission — which CDC data shows is most of the country right now.

“Up to date” with the COVID-19 vaccine means having both the primary series and booster dose, if eligible.

Many Americans are not.

About half of Americans eligible for a booster have not received it yet, according to the CDC. And about 30 percent of Americans 5 years and older have not finished their primary series.

In schools, the agency and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend universal indoor masking for those 2 years and older, regardless of vaccination status.

As the Omicron surge begins to recede, many in the United States are breathing a sigh of relief.

But this is likely not the end of the coronavirus, and experts think the disease will be with us for years to come, even if it is no longer a pandemic.

People will continue to contract the virus, be hospitalized, and in some cases die from COVID-19.

And many people will likely continue to develop long COVID.

How much the future coronavirus surges impact communities will depend on many factors such as vaccination rates, waning immunity, hospital capacity, and availability of COVID-19 treatments.

Vaccine equity is also key. Until the entire world is vaccinated, the coronavirus will continue to be a problem, even for highly vaccinated countries.

In addition, mitigation measures such as improved ventilation, physical distancing, and mask policies will play a key role in helping communities control the spread of the coronavirus.

“As we do not expect COVID to disappear,” said Lundstrom. “We will need to be ready to re-impose things like physical distancing, avoiding crowds, and masking, should we experience an upswing in COVID-19 cases.”

Sosin and others have long argued that decisions about when communities should require masking needs to be driven by data — and in place before the next surge happens.

“We know that variants and the surges that they drive are a hallmark of the pandemic,” said Sosin, “so we really need to be building our policy and public health infrastructure, not dismantling it, as we come out of the Omicron surge.”

She said data could also be used to guide other public health efforts, such as the distribution of tests and masks. That way, communities can respond to rising cases early, when it’s easier to slow the spread of the virus.

Given our current understanding of the coronavirus, as well as the benefits of masks and other public health measures, we already have what we need to develop data-driven policies.

Once these policies are in place, they can be updated to fit new research or to adapt to a new variant that is more transmissible or overcomes the immunity offered by vaccines or prior infection.

“The thing that is really elegant about data-driven policies is that they can be updated in response to evolving guidance and metrics,” said Sosin. “What we really want are policies that are responsive to changing conditions over time.”

Sosin said similar data-driven policies could be developed for schools, although she said public health officials need to think a little bit differently about these.

“The goals of school mask policies are to keep schools open and to limit disruptions to the educational community,” said Sosin. “And also to protect high risk members of schools and the communities of which they’re a part.”

“So I think that the [data] thresholds for making decisions about school mask policies should be different.”

Annette C. Anderson, PhD, deputy director for the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at Johns Hopkins University, has concerns about dropping school masks without clear evidence that this is best for students.

“With these kind of random decisions to drop the mask mandates, we don’t know if those communities are any safer,” said Anderson, “because there are still places across the country where there are high levels of COVID.”

She said the removal of school mask mandates — coupled with the low COVID-19 vaccination rates among 5- to 11-year-olds — leaves parents and school leaders to decide for themselves how to best protect children at school.

“The challenge is that there aren’t any clear guidelines about whether it’s safe now for kids [to stop wearing masks at school],” said Anderson.

In addition, the lack of clear guidelines means that parents and school leaders will not know how to respond if there is another surge or a new variant in the future.

“It concerns me to think that we will have unmasked all of these children in schools,” Anderson said, “and we have no threshold to determine whether or not we should return to masks.”

Even though many people are tired of the pandemic and the disruptions it is causing, Sosin said there is still strong public support for mask policies.

A Monmouth University poll from the end of January found that just over half of people in the United States support mask policies in their state, about the same as last summer’s ebb in the coronavirus spread.

Other polls have found stronger support for mask policies among Democrats than Republicans.

“So I think we need to separate our pandemic fatigue from perceived resistance to the mitigation strategies to control it,” said Sosin.

“Even though Americans are fatigued with the pandemic, it’s the virus and not mask policies that continue to cause the disruptions that we’re seeing.”