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Did Texas lift coronavirus mask mandate too soon? Experts weigh in

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Following news of several states removing mask mandates and greenlighting business reopenings, top health experts warn governors’ “premature” actions threaten a resurgence in coronavirus cases.

Mississippi, for instance, lifted all county mask mandates and allowed businesses to run at full capacity, with Gov. Tate Reeves citing declines in hospitalizations and case numbers.

“Executive orders that interfered with peoples’ lives were the worst, but the only possible, intervention for much of the last year,” Reeves tweeted Tuesday. “Now, we are putting our focus towards rapid vaccine distribution. We are getting out of the business of telling people what they can and cannot do. We’ve been among the 4 or 5 most open states throughout the crisis, and we’ve been rewarded for it with more jobs and economic recovery. That’s not because what we put in place was a light burden. It’s only because the rest of the country was so harsh. That’s good, but we need to recognize that none of these orders, in any state, are anything short of unprecedented. They have to end at the earliest possible moment. This is that moment for Mississippi.” 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made a similar announcement earlier on Tuesday and claimed that with vaccine advances and a reduction in the number of statewide cases, he will rescind many of the state’s COVID-19 mandates next week.

Abbott cited the “medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs,” as tools the state needs “to protect Texans from the virus.” 

“Make no mistake, COVID-19 has not disappeared, but it’s clear from the recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations and safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed.” 

But some experts are concerned that that the orders are being rescinded at a pivotal point in the pandemic. 

“I am extremely concerned about the citizens in Texas and Mississippi given Governor Abbott and Governor Reeves’ abrupt withdrawal of mask mandates and reopening venues at full capacity,” Dr. Lisa Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention at Johns Hopkins Health System, told Fox News. “Although we have seen recent favorable national trends, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths remain at very high levels and we are not yet out of the woods.”

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The U.S. is currently seeing a seven-day average of 66,010 new coronavirus cases, marking an increase of 3.5% from the week prior, while deaths also increased 2.2% from the previous week’s average. However the figures have overall declined from roughly 250,000 daily infections in January.

Experts say the call to lift mask mandates is “premature,” due to high viral transmission, a largely unvacccinated population and continuing spread of highly transmissible variants. The comments echo warnings from Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Monday, she voiced concerns about the virus variants and said the recent ground the country made in combating the disease could be lost. Walensky said declines in cases stalled, and she is “really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19.”

Maragakis warned that “premature withdrawal of infection prevention precautions can cause a resurgence of viral transmission and threatens the hard-won progress that we have made towards ending the pandemic.”

An infectious disease expert at Stanford Health Care, Dr. Dean Winslow, noted that the country is “nowhere near the >75% level of immunity provided by vaccination that is needed to reduce transmission.”

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According to data compiled by the CDC, 7.9% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, and 15.6% of the population has received at least one dose. Winslow noted that COVID-19 treatments like remdesivir, monoclonal antibodies and dexamethasone only offer “modest efficacy.”

“COVID-19 remains a very lethal disease,” Winslow wrote in an emailed statement. “The recent decline in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. is a result of many factors but is mainly a result of the physical mitigating measures (not vaccination) and we will see another increase in cases if we relax these physical measures right now.”

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Dr. Paul Spearman, a member of the board of directors for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and director of infectious diseases at Cincinnati Children’s, called the actions taken in Mississippi and Texas “very premature,” and said it encourages unsafe practices. 

Spearman advised leaders should instead urge mask use and social distancing for businesses, while still celebrating continuing progress on the vaccination front.

“We look forward to a day when we can safely lift all restrictions, but that day is not here yet,” Spearman said.

Fox News’ Caitlin McFall and Alexandria Hein contributed to this report.

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