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As omicron spreads, public health advocates urge states to reinstate mask mandates


A new statewide mask mandate in California takes effect today, which brings the total number of states with mask mandates to 10. And that's frustrating some public health advocates since omicron spreads faster than any variant so far. Here to explain is NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Hey there, Selena.


CORNISH: Let's talk about this from the public health perspective first. Does it seem like more mask-wearing could somehow help slow the spread of omicron?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, yeah. I mean, given what's known about the variant so far, this is still a respiratory virus. It's still going to mostly spread from infected people breathing and sneezing out virus and others breathing it in, so masks should help slow the spread. On a personal level, this might mean it's time to break out your best quality mask, like a KN95, especially if you're traveling or going out in crowds in public. And also, if you've been letting your mask slide down under your nose, you got to up your game. You want it to fit really well.

But still, this isn't about what you or I do with our masks. It's really about lots of people masking, and that's where mandates come in. So Rebecca Nugent, a data scientist at Carnegie Mellon who's been tracking the impact of COVID-19 mitigation policies, recently looked at how delta spread through the summer and fall. And she says among states with similar vaccination rates, those with statewide mask mandates did better.

REBECCA NUGENT: While, you know, having a mask mandate on doesn't necessarily, like, cease the spread - right? - it's not like it's turning it off. You can see a difference between ones that have kept a statewide mask mandate on and ones that haven't.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She and her collaborators are still in the process of analyzing exactly how big the difference is, but she also says in practical terms, any amount of curbing the spread is a win.

CORNISH: We said just 10 states, though, have mandates. What's going on?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, I mean, at the moment, states with mask mandates are really outliers. I checked in today with a group of health reporters at NPR member stations and Kaiser Health News, and I heard it is a no in Michigan, despite overwhelmed hospitals. It's a no in Ohio, and the Legislature has taken away the governor's authority on mandates anyway. It's a no in Tennessee and other states in the South. And reporters told me even some counties and cities that were very pro-mask mandates in the beginning seem to be reluctant to bring them back.

CORNISH: Is there a real surprise to this, though? I mean, were these states that were reluctant before? What's going on?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, I think policymakers have the impression that people are kind of over it. Like, they're not going to comply any way. They're exhausted. It'll just make them angry. And at the federal level, this doesn't seem to be a high priority. In the White House COVID briefing today, officials reiterated CDC's guidance that individuals should be masking, vaccinated or not, in indoor public places, but they did not talk about new mandates. I talked to Emily Landon. She is an infectious disease physician at the University of Chicago who actually worked to convince the governor of Illinois to keep that state's mask mandate in place. And she says she's frustrated that this idea has taken hold that masks are a huge burden.

EMILY LANDON: I told the governor in my conversation with him - I said, you've got to stop talking about unmasking as though it's a reward because it perpetuates this belief that masks are somehow a punishment when it really is that it's actually quite literally the least we can do to protect other people.

CORNISH: If this variant starts to take off the way it has, say, in the U.K., do you think that masking mandates could return?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, that's certainly possible. In the pandemic, policymakers have certainly tended to be reactive. So if cases start really exploding and governors and mayors want new ways to curb the spread without putting lockdowns in place or closing more businesses, it could be that mask mandates start to look more appealing. But some public health advocates say it's smart not to wait for the explosion in cases. Past experience with COVID shows that when mitigation measures are put into place early, surges are smaller and end more quickly and more lives are saved.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thank you.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.