Mask mandates continued to fall in traditionally cautious blue states Wednesday as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases plunged, covid-19 hospitalizations dropped below 100,000 and the government’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, said the country is “on the road to approaching normality.”
In New York, Illinois and Rhode Island, governors said they would soon end requirements that adults wear face coverings in public indoor places and some, including Massachusetts, promised children would no longer have to wear them in school.
“This is what we’re waiting for - tremendous progress after two long years,” said Gov. Kathy Hochul, D, of New York, where the mask mandate will expire Thursday, but the school requirement will remain until at least early March. “And we’re not done. But this is trending in a very, very good direction, and that is why we are now approaching a new phase in this pandemic.”
But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and some independent experts remained more wary. They tried to slow the gathering momentum to move on from a crisis that has killed more than 900,000 people in the United States and disrupted life around the globe for more than two years.
“We continue to recommend masking in areas of high and substantial transmission,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a White House briefing on the pandemic, where she noted the seven-day average of new infections, while plummeting, is still more than 247,000 each day. “That’s much of the country right now, in public indoor settings.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Americans living in states that have pulled back their mask mandates should still follow CDC guidelines.
Taken together, Wednesday’s events were another unusual moment in the once-in-a-century public health crisis: A weary public and eager elected officials largely ignoring the advice of the health professionals who had guided them to this point.
California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Delaware also have dropped mask mandates in recent days. In some cases, officials said local authorities would be making future decisions on when to mask.
Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that while responsibility for the data rests with the CDC, decisions about mitigation methods involve other considerations.
“The risks and benefits of a mask mandate is not a science,” she said. “There is a data and strategy element, and a political element.”
A poll released by the Pew Research Center on Wednesday showed that 60% of the public has been confused by changes in public health recommendations about how to slow the coronavirus, seven points more than last summer.
“It’s hard because there is definitely uncertainty,” said Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “People are responding to uncertainty in different ways.”
Some people have wanted to shed masks - or refused to wear them - since the pandemic began. But unlike the ebb of four previous surges that offered false hopes of an end to the pandemic, this decline features full vaccination for 64% of the U.S. population, acquired immunity for millions who have contracted the virus and therapies that can prevent serious illness, experts said. That has contributed to the surge in optimism.
“I’m glad because guess what? I’m not a cop. I’m not a politician. I’m not a scientist. And I’m not a health inspector. But I’ve had to be all those things in this pandemic,” said Mark Strausman, 65, a chef at Mark’s Off Madison in New York City, as he made pastries. “Now I can go back to my business.
“Look, I think of the pandemic like terrorism. It never totally goes away, but at a certain point you have to live your life.”
The omicron variant itself has proved to cause milder disease than previous versions of the virus - except among the unvaccinated, the elderly and the medically vulnerable. On Wednesday states reported a seven-day average of 2,566 deaths, a slight decline but still more than at any time since vaccines became widely available.
And the ever-present threat of another variant emerging prompted warnings that public health measures such as mask mandates certainly were not yet gone forever.
“Everything I am saying is based on a big caveat,” Fauci said in an interview. “We must be prepared for the eventuality that we might get a completely different variant that breaks through all of the protection that you get from prior infection.”
Some agreed. “It’s too soon and clearly politically motivated. They’re catering to everyone who is fatigued and frustrated. It’s not science and, frankly, it’s not comforting,” said Xavier Smith, 38, a singer heading to Joe’s Pub in New York City, which requires proof of boosters for customers.
“There’s a tendency to stop the control program before the disease is controlled,” said William Schaffner, an infectious-disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. “Hang in there with us for another month or two, and then let’s transition from pandemic to endemic in a careful way.”
Amid the loosening restrictions in the United States, the world on Wednesday marked 500,000 deaths from the highly contagious omicron variant, which was detected in November. About 100,000 of those were in the United States. The World Health Organization’s incident manager, Abdi Mahamud, called the death toll “tragic” in an online Q&A session in light of the availability of “effective vaccines.” He said there have been 130 million reported cases of the coronavirus globally since omicron was identified.
Worldwide, coronavirus deaths rose for the fifth consecutive week, with the 68,000 fatalities reported last week representing a 7% jump from the previous week.
Last week, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news briefing that covid deaths are increasing in many parts of the world. He warned it would be “premature for any country either to surrender, or to declare victory” against the coronavirus.
“We’re concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that because of vaccines, and because of omicron’s high transmissibility and lower severity, preventing transmission is no longer possible, and no longer necessary,” he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Denmark started a trend when it announced in late January that it would end most coronavirus restrictions and attempt to forge a path out of the pandemic that other highly vaccinated countries can follow.
“We say goodbye to the restrictions and welcome the life we knew before” the pandemic, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said at the time. “As of Feb. 1, Denmark will be open.”
Other European countries have followed - though not all on the same schedule - and set off a furious debate among public health experts about whether it is too soon to let down their guard.
Starting Wednesday, Sweden began “phasing out” restrictions, notably by eliminating limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings and the requirement to show proof of vaccination to attend events. Spain and Italy announced an end to their outdoor mask mandates this week, after France did the same last week. Beginning Friday, all testing requirements to enter the United Kingdom will be scrapped for vaccinated travelers.
The governments of these countries reason that now is the time to ease or eliminate restrictions because, while the omicron variant is keeping case numbers high in Europe, hospitalizations have been manageable, and a majority of their populations are vaccinated.
The “live with it” strategy has divided public health experts: Some cheer the return to a more normal life after more than two years of restrictions, and others say the easing of rules will send a false signal that omicron is nothing to worry about.
One cause for concern is the vast disparity within Europe in vaccination coverage and national health-care systems’ capacity to handle case surges. The Balkans and Eastern and Central European countries are generally less vaccinated. Cyprus, Armenia and Slovenia have on average recorded some of the largest jumps in daily covid-19 deaths in the world over the past week, according to a Washington Post tracker.
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The Washington Post’s Scott Clement and Jacqueline Dupree in Washington, Richard Morgan in New York and Annabelle Timsit in London contributed to this report.