Mask mandates fail to return despite pleas from public health experts

A protective face mask lies on the sidewalk in New York on October 26. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Updates on COVID-19.  See the latest news.

Updates on COVID-19. See the latest news.

WASHINGTON — The coronavirus infection rate rose steadily throughout the first half of November across Los Angeles County, then began to rise sharply around the long Thanksgiving weekend.

As a result, on Dec. 1, the county’s director of public health, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, made the announcement some hoped for and others feared: The indoor mask mandate could return for the 10 million residents of the county.

“Los Angeles County will follow CDC guidelines for communities designated at ‘high community level,’ including universal indoor masking,” Ferrer said, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose guidelines local and state officials tend to to use when making cloaking decisions.

In making his case, Ferrer cited not only COVID-19, but also the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, as creating a viral blizzard that some are calling a “triple demy.”

Three weeks later, Los Angeles remains without a mandate.

A woman with a blue face mask stands near another woman without a mask.

Travelers wearing face masks wait in line to check in at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Of course, many people continue to disguise themselves. But like other public health officials across the country, Ferrer chose not to mandate it, leaving masking as a matter of personal choice.

The reluctance to impose new mandates has frustrated some public health experts, who believe the anti-mask rhetoric has made even many Democrats fearful of a measure that could stop the spread of the coronavirus as well as other diseases. And with hundreds of people still dying from COVID-19 every day, they argue that making masks optional in crowded places only puts people at risk.

“The science behind universal masking hasn’t changed — COVID is airborne, and masks reduce the spread,” Boston University public health expert Julia Reifman told Yahoo News. “Rational, data-driven approaches to masking policies when and where there are state or local spikes could help mitigate the transmission of COVID and other respiratory diseases currently prevalent in pediatric hospitals.”

The nation is now registering 48,000 new coronavirus infections and 450 new deaths from COVID-19 per day. These numbers are far below what they were in the darkest days of the pandemic, before the advent of vaccines and therapeutics, but they suggest that the pandemic is not over.

Supporters of masking say that with heavy travel expected in the next few weeks and people congregating indoors, masking makes as much sense now as it has, especially with hospital capacity is strained in parts of the country.

A man in a face mask, surrounded by several others, looks out a window at a body of water.

A man wearing a face mask rides the Staten Island Ferry in New York Harbor on October 24. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

“It’s a small price to pay,” Dr. Vin Gupta said during a recent appearance on MSNBC.

So far, however, few municipalities or regions have been willing to pay it. Philadelphia will make masks mandatory in schools when students return from winter break. School officials in Sacramento, Calif., considered bringing back the masks earlier in December, but so far have not done so.

Oakland, California, has mandated wearing masks in government buildings — but not in other indoor spaces. Private businesses are of course free to impose masks, but many may be hesitant to do so without the force of a government decree backing their decision.

In New York, Mayor Eric Adams appeared at a news conference related to the pandemic on Wednesday wearing a mask. He and the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, have asked New Yorkers to put their masks back on — but have not authorized them to do so.

Manhattan restaurants were packed this past weekend, as were other entertainment venues. The subways were crowded. The bars were full. And while masks were not uncommon, they were hardly universal, especially when it came to eating and drinking.

Public fatigue over the pandemic would likely make it difficult to implement a new mandate, potentially forcing bus drivers, fast-food workers and others in the unwelcome position of trying again to get the unwilling to wear masks.

“The data on masking to reduce transmission is pretty dire,” says Dr. Lucy McBride, a Washington, D.C. physician who writes for the Bulletin of Medicine. “And even if the data shows that masks work perfectly all the time (which they don’t), we have to consider the potential downsides of face coverings,” she told Yahoo News.

Several dozen people in winter clothes stand or walk outside, some wearing face masks.

People wearing masks in New York on December 12. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

“I tell my patients who want to protect themselves to mask up if they want because one-way masking has been shown to protect the wearer,” McBride said.

Studies on masks are controversial (Reifman, a health expert at Boston University, points to data showing that mask policies are effective). On the one hand, it is extremely difficult to reproduce real conditions in a laboratory. Some people wear masks incorrectly, not completely covering their nose and mouth. Others wear cloth masks that are ineffective. Even the ubiquitous surgical masks offer far less protection than N-95 cup respirators, which—if properly fitted and worn consistently—offer the best kind of protection.

“Politics aside, mask mandates would help prevent Covid if people wear the right masks, correctly. If not, they won’t work,” Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote recently on Twitter.

Supporters of masking point to the possibility of a long COVID — a debilitating and little-understood condition — as well as vaccination rates that have remained largely stagnant in recent months, with the bivalent booster being used only modestly. Masking, they say, is the surest way to protect vulnerable people, including the immunocompromised and the elderly.

“Officials often like to blame the public for being too mask-weary, but the data tells us that’s simply not true. Even nearly three years after the start of the pandemic, polls consistently show that a majority of people in the U.S. support mask mandates, especially in communities of color.” Dr. Lucky Tranan outspoken advocate of a cautious approach to the pandemic, told Yahoo News in an email.

Parents in Boston recently petitioned education officials there to reinstate the mandate. Merely masquerading as a choice, they argue, is not enough. “It should be kind of a mandate for people to follow,” said one of those parents.

So far, however, neither they nor like-minded Americans elsewhere have had much success in persuading government officials. White House officials say they fully support masks as an important tool in the fight against COVID-19, but say vaccination is the better weapon against the virus.

President Biden, with his sleeve rolled up, is punched in the arm by a woman wearing rubber gloves and a face mask.

President Biden receives the last booster shot against COVID-19 on October 25. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

In a recent interview with NPR, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said communities with high rates of the virus should “wear masks.”

But, she added, “we’ve certainly always said that masking is a personal choice.”

This is not quite true. Walensky and other Biden administration officials have been diligently masking themselves — and urging Americans to do so — in 2021. But by early 2022, even some Democratic governors were exhausted by pandemic restrictions.

They wanted to see schools open again, stadiums full – and masks removed.

In late February, the CDC issued new guidelines that effectively made it much easier for officials to justify the lack of masks. Then, just weeks later, a court ruling overturned mandates to wear masks on airplanes and other forms of travel.

Since then, Biden administration officials have said little about the masks. West Wing staff now wear them only sporadically, if at all. That includes President Biden, who has been traveling extensively in recent months and holding holiday receptions at the White House. And at these receptions, masks are rare.

At a recent White House press briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s top adviser on the pandemic, was asked why the administration isn’t doing more to emphasize masking ahead of the holiday season.

“We have multiple interventions and multiple actions we can take to protect ourselves. So there’s a whole spectrum,” Fauci replied. “Masking is one of them.”

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