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Experts say its too soon to lift mask mandates as variants spread

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  • Some states have dramatically lifted COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates.
  • But experts say the US is in a race against the clock to vaccinate before the variants spread.
  • While some restrictions can be eased as case numbers decrease, experts say masks should be the last to go.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

As COVID-19 case numbers continue to drop in the US, some states have lifted their mask mandates.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum let his state’s mask mandate expire in January. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said earlier this month that Iowans no longer have to wear masks in public. And Montana’s new Republican governor rescinded his Democratic predecessors’ state-wide mask mandate last week.

The drop in coronavirus cases is cited in decisions to lift restrictions, and indeed, all three states are down from their November peaks. But experts told Insider that while the dropping case counts are promising, it might be too soon to make dramatic changes in restrictions, especially when it comes to masks.

“It’s completely too soon,” Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, told Insider.

“It goes against the grain of what President Biden is trying to do, which is a national strategy that we never had,” he said. “COVID doesn’t restrict itself by state borders.”

Chin-Hong said the lack of a national strategy hindered efforts to restrict coronavirus transmission all of last year, and having individual states lifting mask mandates is a continuation of that.

Even as President Joe Biden’s administration has vamped up vaccinations, Chin-Hong said coronavirus variants are a big concern.

“The vaccine rollout is progressing everywhere, but it probably won’t be able to protect the population fast enough,” he said.

The experts Insider spoke to all said there are encouraging signs, but that the US is still in a race against the clock to vaccinate before virus variants spread more widely.

The uncertainty of the variants

For Iowa specifically, Chin-Hong said multiple cases of the UK variant have been discovered there this month, but “that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

He said because of the amount of testing being done for the variant, it is probably much more widespread than is known.

The variant, known as B.1.1.7, is known to be more transmissible than the original strain. British scientists have also become increasingly convinced that the variant could be deadlier as well.

That particular variant has been detected in 44 states, and Chin-Hong said it will likely be dominant by March. Meanwhile, if states continue to lift restrictions like mask mandates, it increases the likelihood for B.1.1.7 to spread.

In Iowa, a state that has dramatically lifted restrictions, Chin-Hong said the virus is “probably having a party right now.”

The UK variant is just one of many coronavirus variants circulating in the US. And it’s possible that more will emerge, making it an evolving issue with lots of uncertainty that scientists are struggling to keep up with.

“We’re entering a phase where its harder to know what the near-term future is like,” Andrew Noymer, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, Irvine, told Insider.

He said throughout the pandemic, his expectations for what would happen – like the summer and winter surges – have largely been accurate. But, he said, for the first time he feels like he really doesn’t know what the immediate future looks like in regards to the pandemic.

Racing to vaccinate

Dr. Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida, agreed that it’s too soon to be lifting mask mandates.

“The thing is, we still have COVID circulating and don’t have the majority of people vaccinated,” she said, adding that while case numbers are lower than they were during the holiday surge, they’re still not at ideal levels in most places.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 63,090,634 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the US. About 13% of Americans have received their first dose, while less than 6% are fully vaccinated, NPR reported. 

To reach herd immunity, estimates say 65% to 80% of a population would need to be immune. Many experts have said the US is far from achieving that, Insider’s Aria Bendix reported.

The Biden administration is well on its way to achieving its goal of administering 100 million vaccine shots in its first 100 days, and even has plans to further ramp up vaccinations. The president’s team hopes to vaccinate all eligible adults by the end of summer, AP reported.

But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Biden’s chief COVID-19 medical advisor, has said priority groups won’t finish getting vaccinated until some time in April.

If the more-transmissible UK variant is expected to be dominant by March, that leaves a lot of time for it to circulate if restrictions are loosened too much.

“It is really a race against time,” Prins said.

Before dramatically lifting restrictions, she said states should have a combination of low transmission as well as a high number of fully vaccinated people to reach a “balance where we feel like we’re not going to have widespread transmission.”

“We’ll get to that point,” she said. “But we’re not there yet.”

‘Masks should be among the last to go’

Despite concerns over variants, Noymer said it’s reasonable for states to reevaluate restrictions as case numbers drop.

“People are getting antsy,” Noymer told Insider. “What you don’t want to have is a situation in which people don’t want to follow any restrictions because they feel it’s all too strict.”

Noymer said it varies by location, but in some cases, loosening restrictions could even have an overall positive effect. For instance, he mentioned California, where an outdoor dining ban implemented in the fall sparked outrage and even led to some restaurants and local jurisdictions flouting the rules.

According to Noymer, this is a significant problem because it runs the risk of some restrictions being viewed as meaningless.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom reopened outdoor dining late last month, prompting some to wonder whether the decision came too soon. But Noymer said it just brought the restrictions closer in line with reality in some places, which can go a long way in maintaining the public’s trust.

“I’d like to have these orders still have some meaning when in the fall we might face a new wave with variants,” Noymer said.

But as far as what kinds of restrictions can safely be lifted, he said “masks should be among the last to go.”

He said relative to other aspects of life that have been disrupted by the pandemic, masks are a minor inconvenience compared to the extent of their public health benefits.

“We know that masking is really important for prevention,” Prins said, adding that to keep case numbers from rising again it’s crucial for people to continue wearing masks and physical distancing until more Americans can be vaccinated.

Masks may be one of the last parts of the pandemic to go away, as Fauci even said on Sunday that it’s possible Americans will be wearing masks into 2022, when life might begin to look a bit more “normal.”

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