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Scientist says state governments are lifting mask mandates prematurely


The announcements seemed to come in a rush yesterday. In a matter of weeks, students in New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Oregon won't have to wear masks. And in California, vaccinated people won't have to wear masks indoors as of next week. As cases of new coronavirus infections fall across the country, several other states are making similar changes to their masking policies. Why now, and what could these changes mean going forward? Those are two things we're going to talk about with Mercedes Carnethon. She's a professor of epidemiology and vice chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University. Thanks for speaking with us.

MERCEDES CARNETHON: Well, thank you for the opportunity to talk today.

FLORIDO: Does the science suggest it's actually safe to lift mask mandates for the vaccinated at this point in the pandemic?

CARNETHON: You know, I think the science is pointing us in a number of directions. And if we use our past experience as a guide, I think it's premature in many regions of the country to consider lifting these mask mandates. In my opinion, I think certain conditions need to be met in order for those lifting of mask mandates to make sense and continue to protect our school populations.

FLORIDO: And what are those conditions?

CARNETHON: I think the decisions about lifting school mask mandates really need to be driven by the rates of community transmission in a given area; the rates of vaccination within a school among both the children and the staff; and also the local capacity to manage the cases that are likely to happen because if we aren't at acceptable levels of each of those metrics, we run the risk of repeating what we saw when we opened up schools in summer of 2020 in some regions of the country without masking - and those were outbreaks. And that was repeated again during the delta wave in the September of 2021. And we don't want to go back there, you know? We're making positive progress, and we need to continue that positive progress.

FLORIDO: Miss Carnethon, you're in Illinois where it's really cold. We know it's riskier to be indoors without a mask than it is to be outside without a mask. Here in California, it was in the 80s this week. I wonder whether you think that more tailored policies are necessary or if you think there's a risk in having a sort of piecemeal approach and you still think we should have mask mandates across the board, nationwide?

CARNETHON: No. I think that a piecemeal and geographic approach is appropriate. You bring up a critical point. The more activities that we can hold outdoors where we know the risk of transmission is lower, the more activities we can hold in spaces with windows open with fresh air circulation, the safer our children and the staff will be. And so I think that a national mandate would not be the right approach because that's not being responsive because we see regional variation in rates.

FLORIDO: You know, there was a period last spring when many states and local governments started to lift mask mandates, and we all started to sort of cautiously remove them in indoor settings. That felt like such an optimistic moment in the pandemic. And then the variants came, and we all masked-up again. And we realized maybe it was a mistake to lift those mask mandates. At what point will we know it truly is OK, in your view, to get rid of masks for good?

CARNETHON: You know, I'm not sure I agree that it was a mistake to have rolled back the mask mandates last spring and last summer. We were seeing extremely low rates of transmission. We were seeing rapid uptake of vaccination among populations who were eligible. And things felt relatively safe. I had certainly hoped, as you did, that once vaccines became even more widely available that we could get rid of the masks forever. However, maybe we need to reconsider what normal looks like and consider adopting some of the strategies that many countries in Asia have, which is that masks are a tool that's used during the cold and flu season. For us here in the United States, particularly during the winter months when people have to be indoors, perhaps mask-wearing is what we're going to need to do to be able to continue engaging in social activities and essential in-person activities such as education and work.

FLORIDO: That's the vice chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University, Mercedes Carnethon. Thanks for being with us.

CARNETHON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.