Feb 10, 2022 - Health

America is removing its masks ... again

Illustration of a mask with a red x being drawn over it.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Ready or not, states across the U.S. have begun another great unmasking as they prepare to enter the post-Omicron phase of the pandemic.

Why it matters: Reasonable experts don't exactly agree on whether it's the right time to start exposing our faces in public again, which makes it difficult to gauge how much of this broader shift is based in science versus changing risk tolerance.

"We're starting to get to this place where there's almost a cultural shift in the pandemic, as well, where there's an acceptance around certain types of risk," Erica Johnson, chairwoman of the Infectious Disease Board of the American Board of Internal Medicine, told Axios.

  • "That's very much entangled with what to do about masks and what masks represent."
  • She and several other experts indicated that based on the trajectory of cases and hospitalizations — as well as the presence of vaccines and effective treatments for COVID — planning to end mask mandates was reasonable.

Yes, but: There is by no means a consensus on this in the medical community.

  • "Judging by the daily death counts and the stress on hospitals, I would say it's a little premature," Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, told Axios.
  • "The data I'm looking at shows we're still at the acute phase where we have historic levels of all-cause, increased mortality as compared to our usual norms. I define that as the definition of still being in the emergency part of the pandemic," he said.

Between the lines: Among the fiercest debates is whether schools should be removing mask mandates, with teachers' unions urging for science, not politics, to guide these decisions.

  • Parents and some doctors have raised concerns about the potential harms of learning loss and reduced social connection masks have caused in kids during developmental years.
  • Others have said the data indicates it makes sense to loosen rules in schools. "There was and is a time and place for pandemic restrictions. But when they were put in, it was always with the understanding that they would be removed as soon as we can. And in this case, circumstances have changed," medical analyst Leana Wen told CNN.

The big picture: This is still a nation very much in flux and clear communication from the top throughout this pandemic has proved ... challenging.

  • "We've always said these decisions are going to have to be made at the local level," CDC director Rochelle Walensky said during a briefing.
  • Hours later, however, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked about the CDC's universal indoor masking recommendation in schools. "This is where we would advise any American to follow the CDC," she said.

The bottom line: We've been here before where case counts dropped and masks came off.

  • It would behoove local leaders to define clear metrics when we do unmask so their communities understand what future threshold might require masks to come back, if — and when — COVID throws another curveball, experts said.
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