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When can covid masks finally come off?

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When can covid masks finally come off?

Amidst the turmoil of the past two years — a period that included a deadly pandemic, mass layoffs, an ugly presidential election and an attack on the United States Capitol — some fierce political debate in America has been waged on an almost weightless piece of fabric: face. Mask.

US officials delayed the adoption of face masks as a strategy to slow the spread of the coronavirus. When they finally did, the masks became a powerful symbol of the pandemic – a common-sense public health measure political flashpoint and a visible reminder that life was anything but normal.

Now, with the Delta boom of summer in the rearview mirror and school-age children getting vaccinated, many Americans are wondering when masks may finally take off.

“The best science supports wearing masks as a valid strategy to reduce COVID-19,” said Dr. Stephen Luby, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at Stanford University. “The point is: well, how long do we do it, and in how many contexts?” He said, “Do we all wear masks for the rest of our lives?”

Some public officials are already mapping out an endgame. On Tuesday, Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that indoor mask requirements would be relaxed. The next day, Florida lawmakers passed a bill banning the school mask mandate, which some districts had already abandoned.

Eric Adams, New York City’s mayor-elect, “wants to drop the mask mandate in schools once health officials determine it is safe,” his spokesman said in an email.

That time has not yet come, experts said.

“Cases are starting to rise again, and we haven’t conquered this virus yet,” said Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We may be tired of COVID and COVID restrictions and public health measures, but this virus certainly hasn’t happened to us yet.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that fully vaccinated people also wear masks in public indoor places where community transmission of the virus is “substantial or high.” Currently, about 85 percent of US counties meet that threshold, which is defined as at least 50 new cases weekly per 100,000 residents.

It would be safe to reduce mask requirements early next year, scientists said, after more children are fully vaccinated and the holiday travel season has passed. He said voluntary mask wearing would be helpful in certain circumstances as well as in future cold and flu seasons.

“I don’t think we want to take off all our masks,” Dr Luby said.

Several lines of evidence support the effectiveness of face masks as a public health intervention.

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Laboratory studies have shown that even basic cloth masks can block more than 50 percent of small aerosols; Surgical masks and N95 respirators are even better. And real-world research shows that statewide and schoolwide masks curb the spread of the virus.

A randomized trial by Dr. Lubi and colleagues in 600 villages in Bangladesh demonstrated that mask-wearing interventions, including the distribution of free masks and a multi-faceted messaging campaign, resulted in a substantial increase in mask wear and a decline in COVID-19. Cases (The study has not yet been published in a scientific journal.)

All of these studies have limitations, but together they, and many similar analyses, add up to a clear conclusion.

“There’s a lot of evidence that masks help slow transmission,” said Lynsey Marr, an airborne virus specialist at Virginia Tech.

Face masks are not without drawbacks. “They hinder communication,” Dr. Marr said. “They can be uncomfortable.”

Some people with disabilities may not be able to wear a mask, and there is still debate about how to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of wearing a mask to young children, who are more likely than adults to become seriously ill with the virus. I have very little. (The CDC says that children under age 2 should not wear masks, while the World Health Organization recommends against requiring masks for children under age 6.)

But given that most people tolerate masks well and wearing masks is far less disruptive than other mitigation measures such as lockdowns, Experts said that face masks are an important tool in managing the pandemic.

“I think wearing a mask is, in many ways, one of those interventions that you probably want to relax with,” said Richard Stutt, an infectious disease modeler at the University of Cambridge. “Mask wearing is very low-cost compared to most other interventions.”

But the mask mandate was not intended to last forever, and this fall, as cases fell and vaccine eligibility expanded, some public officials began to consider how to end them.

This month, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health announced its criteria, including specific vaccination and transmission benchmarks, to lift some of its indoor masking requirements.

Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey recently said he hopes to lift the state’s school mask mandate The idea was to eliminate the requirement in phases, starting with “as soon as possible” and high schools whose teenage students have been eligible for vaccinations for months.

But loosening mask requirements would now be premature, experts said, especially as we move into winter, when people spend more time indoors, with holiday travel bringing people from far flung places closer together. and respiratory viruses spread easily.

“Now is not the time to dilute the mask mandate,” Dr Luby said.

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Dr. Marr recommends not lifting the school mask mandate until the winter holidays are over and more school-age kids have had a chance to get both of their shots. If community transmission levels are low or moderate a few weeks after school resumes in January, then, “yes, let’s get rid of masks,” she said.

Seema Lakdawala, a respiratory virus specialist at the University of Pittsburgh, envisioned a similar timeline: “Maybe in February, we can say goodbye to masks.”

Other experts were reluctant to provide a date. Dr. Rimoin said she would like to see a more sustained reduction in cases and deaths before easing mask requirements. “We are still seeing 1,000 people die a day from this virus,” she said. “It’s not just a matter of comfort and ease – I mean, it’s a matter of life or death for many people.”

Based on a complex set of factors, including local transmission and vaccination rates, and the vulnerability of the population in question, the scientists stressed that easing of mask restrictions would need to be made.

“If there is an outbreak in an area or a particular community, I think it makes a lot of sense for people in that community to wear masks, even if at a national level, things are largely under control,” Dr. Stut said.

And wearing a mask isn’t everything. Even after the mandate is lifted, it makes sense for some people – older adults or those who are immunocompromised, for example – to wear masks in certain circumstances and settings. And people should be prepared to put back masks in the event of a future surge, the scientists said.

Experts also expressed hope that the new mask-wearing norms could beat the pandemic. Face masks can help reduce transmission of other respiratory viruses, and experts said they plan to continue wearing masks in some environments, such as planes and buses, during future flu season.

“Before the pandemic there was a stigma associated with wearing masks in this country, but I think it has become normal in many places,” Dr. Mar said. (Still, she admitted, “I think other people will never wear masks again.”)

Dr. Lakdawala expressed hope that as other pandemic restrictions are eased, people may find the period of wearing masks in some high-risk situations, less difficult, less time.

“Hopefully, as people become more comfortable with vaccination and feel that they can see their friends and family and they can go about their normal activities safely, wearing a mask for 20 minutes on the bus Wearing it requires you to ride it to work. Not seen as a burden,” she said. “It is seen as a way to protect myself and my family.”

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