It’s Way Too Early to End State Mask Mandates

‘People who have not been vaccinated are going to get sick and die from this Governor’

Photo: Yulia Reznikov/Getty

On Tuesday, Texas governor Greg Abbott said he would end the statewide mask mandate and opened up all businesses and facilities across the state. “We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100 percent,” he said in a statement. His executive order is set to take effect on March 10.

Experts across the state and country were aghast: The data make it overwhelmingly clear that it is far too early to resume normalcy. While the numbers of new cases and deaths are declining across the United States, they are not yet low enough, and the situation varies greatly by state. Over 50,990 new cases and 1,665 deaths were reported in Texas in the past week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University; the state’s new daily cases are trending upward, and the number of tests administered is trending downward. With only 7.20% of its population fully vaccinated, Texas is behind most states in the vaccine rollout.

In Abbott’s statement — released Tuesday, which was Texas Independence Day — he acknowledged that Covid-19 hadn’t “disappeared” but emphasized the importance of personal liberty: “With this executive order, we are ensuring that all businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny.” According to the Dallas News, two of Abbott’s four medical advisers were not consulted in making this decision.

“People who have not been vaccinated are going to get sick and die from this Governor,” tweeted Abraar Karan, MD, an internal medicine doctor at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “You should be protecting your state & its ‘destiny’.” Texas city and county leaders urged people to continue wearing masks and heed the science, harshly criticizing the governor. The hashtag “I hate it here” trended on Twitter as some Texans expressed their opposition to the move.

In a press briefing at the White House on Monday, Rochelle Walensky, MD, director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, expressed deep concern over states rolling back public health interventions to stop the spread of Covid-19. “Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” she said. “These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress. Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of Covid-19 in our communities, not when we are so close.” After Abbott released his statement, Walensky reminded people that all individuals are empowered to make their own health decisions, regardless of state rules.

The timing of Abbott’s executive order is especially worrying because it is so close to spring break. (Recall that last year, over 40 spring breakers from Austin tested positive after ignoring guidance to socially distance and avoid travel.) In an interview with the Dallas News, epidemiologist Diana Cervantes, PhD, of the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, said: “We don’t want a spring break spike. Right now we’re at a critical cusp point where things could definitely turn around. It could either go up or down.”

There are concerns that other states will follow Texas’s lead and make similarly scientifically unjustified moves. On Tuesday night, Mississippi governor Tate Reeves tweeted that the state’s mask mandate and business closures would end on Wednesday. “Our hospitalizations and case numbers have plummeted, and the vaccine is being rapidly distributed,” he wrote. “It is time!” In the past week, Mississippi’s new case count has trended upward, with 4,073 new cases, and the number of tests administered has decreased. Only 7.63% of its population has been fully vaccinated. Fifteen other states do not have mask mandates, according to AARP.

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.

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