Public health community reacts to new masking guidelines

On February 9, Governor Dan McKee announced plans to lift indoor masking requirements in Rhode Island schools on March 4 and allow masking policies for restaurants and businesses to be determined locally from from February 11, The Herald previously reported.

This policy was changed because the state is in “a much better place with COVID-19 than we were at the start of the year,” McKee wrote in a Feb. 9 post. Posting on Twitter. “Since we experienced our previous spike in cases in early January, cases have declined by almost 94%. And our hospitalization rates are down 52%.

McKee thanked Rhode Islanders for “coming together to do the right thing” throughout the pandemic and enabling “schools, businesses and meeting places to implement health and safety measures. security best suited to the needs of their communities,” in a February 9. Press release. The statement also cites the decrease in severity of symptoms among those vaccinated and continued efforts to vaccinate residents as reasons for the decision.

“Omicron is not booming at the moment. If you look at the curve, we are actually on the exponential path down,” said Philip Chan, RIDOH Consulting Medical Director and Associate Professor of Medicine at the University “We’re in a much, much, much better place.”

But Amy Nunn, professor of behavioral and social sciences and medicine at the University, believes the move is premature. “I think it will increase the transmission rates of COVID. And I think masking is one of the most effective and easiest things we can do to reduce transmission, so I was surprised” by the decision, Nunn said.

Chan acknowledges the concern over a potential increase in transmission rates as a result of this policy change, and said it’s something that “we’re obviously watching closely.” This is one of the reasons he suggests that “we should consider threshold-based thresholds for determining when to pull the trigger for things like masking (and) testing.”

The Centers for Disease Control currently divides counties in the United States into four levels of community transmission based on the total number of new cases and positivity rates. The CDC recommends that masks be worn in indoor public places in areas designated as having “substantial” or “high” transmission rates. Rhode Island meets the threshold to be designated as having a “substantial” transmission rate, which means the CDC is still recommending indoor masking requirements for the state, Chan explained.

“People want to be done with COVID, but it may not be over with us, and so we have to be prepared to increase our precautions when the numbers go up,” Nunn said. “And just because we’re suffering from COVID-related fatigue doesn’t mean we have to give up on some of the most impactful measures.”

Nunn added that “we should just think about preserving the steps that we know are easy,” in reference to masking. While “masking is easy,” she said, it can be “hard at times to really avoid socializing and all the things that we love to do.”

“We have to find a balance between living with COVID and living the rest of our lives,” Chan said. “We have to get to a place where we can balance everything with living with COVID.”

Chan thinks we’re at a turning point in terms of COVID preparedness. “We have treatments available now; we have vaccines available now; we have new formulations of the vaccine on the horizon. We have increased the supply of upcoming treatments. We are approaching, rapidly, a very different phase of the pandemic where we have a lot of options to prevent and treat things.

Nunn stressed the importance of finding a way for state residents to live their lives despite the public health challenges posed by the pandemic. “What people need to do is just reduce their risk, not eliminate it altogether, because we’re all social beings, but people can do a lot by just taking a few simple precautions.” For example, she thinks “there may be unnecessary transmission that could have been avoided with a mask mandate.”

“Nobody likes warrants,” Chan said. “But just because there’s no mandate doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do certain things… Even if there’s no mandate, people should still mask up indoors in public places when fares are higher.”

“It’s really easy to wear a mask,” Nunn said. “It’s one of the most impactful things we can do.”