Several health officials are recommending people dust off their masks as respiratory viruses are pushing many hospitals to their limit, but a lot of Americans seem unwilling to do so.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on Friday issued a health advisory recommending everyone regardless of vaccination status wear a mask in indoor public settings and crowded outdoor spaces.
“The holiday season is about togetherness and there is a way to gather safely – even as respiratory viruses in our city are unusually high,” Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan said in a statement. “It starts with protecting yourself. Vaccination and boosters are critical but so are common sense precautions like masking when indoors or among crowds and staying home if you don’t feel well. Also, get tested before getting together, and get treated quickly if you test positive. We want everyone to have a happy and – most of all – healthy holiday.”
The move comes as COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is sickening millions of Americans and putting increased pressure on health care systems. Some are referring to the circulation of the three viruses as a “tripledemic.”
“Flu’s here, it started early, and with COVID and RSV also circulating, it’s a perfect storm for a terrible holiday season,” Sandra Fryhofer of the American Medical Association said on a call with reporters last week.
Cartoons on the Coronavirus
Several county health officials in Washington state and state health officials in Oregon have made similar indoor mask recommendations for their jurisdictions in recent days.
“The combination of surging flu, RSV and COVID-19 cases is pushing hospitals past their current ICU bed capacity, which never happened during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Oregon,” Dean Sidelinger, the state’s top epidemiologist, said in a press briefing on Thursday.
Los Angeles County officials last week said they would hold off on issuing an indoor mask mandate despite rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. Instead, it will stick with its “strong recommendation,” according to LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.
Ferrer did leave the mandate option on the table, saying it would be implemented if 10% of county hospital beds are filled with COVID-19 patients. Coronavirus patients currently occupy nearly 7% of hospital beds.
The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week also encouraged masking – a recommendation that has become more rare from the agency as many in the Biden administration have moved away from messaging on the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We also encourage you to wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a call with reporters.
She added that “one need not wait on CDC action in order to put a mask on.”
Still, many jurisdictions are showing no interest at all in recommending masks again as many Americans want to look past the pandemic even as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are on the rise.
According to a recent Axios-Ipsos poll, about half of Americans say they have returned to their pre-pandemic routines while just a third report wearing a mask some or all of the time when leaving the home.
Axios reported that nearly half of Americans believe there is a large or moderate risk of contracting a respiratory illness other than COVID-19, but only 27% said they have changed their behavior to reduce potential exposure.
The Biden administration is warning that the high circulation of the three viruses poses challenges for the near future.
“We are seeing a clear uptick in infections of COVID pretty much in every region of the country, up about 40% over the last couple of weeks. So three challenges all arriving at the same time,” Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said at an event on Thursday. “There’s going to be some bumpy days ahead.”
While they support masking recommendations in some circumstances, U.S. health officials don’t expect widespread mask mandates to make a comeback, especially given the sharp objections from Republicans and others who say that the new COVID-19 variants are not as severe as the original strain and levels of community protection are high from vaccines and previous infections.
“I am not talking about mandating anything,” leading infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told NBC News last week. “I’m talking about just common sense of saying, ‘You know, I really don’t want to take the risk of myself getting infected, and even more so, spreading it to someone who is a vulnerable member of my family.’”
The majority of the country – 72% of counties – are experiencing a “high” level of COVID-19 transmission, according to the CDC. That’s a significant jump over the previous week, likely due to people gathering over the recent holiday and colder weather pushing more people indoors.
But less than 10% of counties are considered to be under a CDC recommendation to wear masks while indoors in public areas under the agency’s “community levels,” which is the guidance it adopted in February that diverges from transmission levels.