Rising COVID-19 cases renew US mask mandate debate

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US officials are rethinking how and whether to impose mask mandates as COVID-19 infections skyrocket and the US public grows increasingly tired of pandemic-related restrictions.

US officials are rethinking how and whether to impose mask mandates as COVID-19 infections skyrocket and the US public grows increasingly tired of pandemic-related restrictions.

Much of the debate revolves around the country’s schools, some of which have been closed due to infection-related staffing problems. In several places, mask mandates are being lifted or voted out.

The changes come as the federal government assesses the supply of medical-grade face masks such as N95 or KN95 masks. At a briefing Wednesday, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said officials are “strongly considering options to make more high-quality masks available to all Americans,” noting that the government has a stockpile of more than 750 million N95 masks.

The best mask “is the one you’ll wear and the one you can wear all day, that you can tolerate in indoor public settings,” says Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Monday, officials in the Wyoming capital voted to end a mask mandate for students and educators that had been in effect since September. The Cheyenne school district also reduced isolation requirements for COVID-19 and voted to require that only people with symptoms and positive tests — not just those exposed — must stay home for five days and then wear a mask for five days.

The University of Missouri board on Tuesday rejected the request of the president of the university system to temporarily require masks on Columbia’s campus, as well as a mandate specific to classrooms and labs.

A school board meeting was canceled Monday in Wichita, Kansas, after three new members refused to wear masks to a swearing-in ceremony. Meanwhile, elected officials in the Topeka area rejected a plea to make masks mandatory, urging people to exercise caution but saying they were not ready for a requirement.

Some jurisdictions are making the switch to more robust mask policies on their own, including requiring higher quality mask materials.

Last week, the University of Arizona announced it would require a medical-grade mask in indoor areas where social distancing is not possible. The school said on its website that it no longer considers cloth masks to be sufficient, although a cloth mask can be worn over a medical-grade mask to improve fit and increase protection.

A new indoor mask mandate goes into effect Wednesday in New Orleans, ahead of the Mardi Gras season. According to the city’s health director, Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the daily number of hospitalizations for the coronavirus in Louisiana has increased sixfold in three weeks — a spike that has burdened hospitals, where emergency room wait times are sometimes as high as 12 hours.

Health officials in Omaha, Nebraska, announced a temporary mask mandate on Tuesday, but the state has threatened a prosecution if the rule is enforced as planned. Omaha City Council chairman Pete Festersen said a majority of the council supported the move.

“This is not a decision that I have taken lightly. This was not an easy decision at all and I know it will make some waves,” said Lindsay Huse, Douglas County health director. “But this is a tool that we have in our toolbox We have research, evidence showing that masks reduce transmission.”

Other places were hesitant to bring back requirements that ended months ago. In Michigan, where state officials said record high COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations could peak in late January or early February before falling, health leaders have remained reluctant to reinstate restrictions or mask mandates. They keep begging people to get vaccinated, get booster shots, wear well-fitting masks in public and avoid large gatherings.

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, recommended that people wear an N95 mask or two well-fitting face coverings. A parent group has called for school mask requirements, which are in effect in most individual districts, but not at the state level.

In Utah, as lawmakers prepared to begin meeting for the year, GOP Governor Spencer Cox exempted the Capitol and other state facilities from a municipal mask mandate. Jenny Wilson, the Democratic mayor of Salt Lake County, said the governor had no authority to make exceptions to the policy, which requires N95 and KN95 or similar masks for a month in indoor areas, including schools.

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Associated Press writer Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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