As Covid-19 continues its deadly march throughout the world, several experts in the United States are warning against lifting statewide mask mandates and other coronavirus-related precautions, given that a premature rollback of public health measures threatens to derail progress in curbing the pandemic just as the potential of widespread vaccination grows.
"I understand the need to want to get back to normality, but you're only going to set yourself back if you just completely push aside the public health guidelines."
—Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAID
During a Wednesday night appearance on CNN, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) said the decision to rescind pandemic-related regulations at this point is "ill-advised... from a public health standpoint."
Referring to the recent plateau in cases, Fauci said that "we've been to this scene before months and months ago when we tried to open up the country and open up the economy. When certain states did not abide by the guidelines, we had rebounds, which were very troublesome."
"What we don't need right now," he continued, "is another surge, so just pulling back on all of the public health guidelines that we know work... is inexplicable."
"I understand the need to want to get back to normality, but you're only going to set yourself back if you just completely push aside the public health guidelines—particularly when we're dealing with anywhere from 55,000 to 70,000 infections per day in the United States," he added. "That's a very, very high baseline."
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said Wednesday in an appearance on CBS News that "we are at a critical nexus in the pandemic. So much can turn in the next few weeks."
While President Joe Biden's announcement Tuesday that the U.S. is "on track" to have an adequate supply of vaccine doses "for every adult in America by the end of May" has raised hopes about the possibility of a return to normalcy, Walensky cautioned viewers that the ill-considered loosening of restrictions in some states at precisely the moment when more contagious variants are spreading puts the country "on the cusp" of another potential resurgence of the virus.
"Stamina has worn thin," Walensky admitted. "Fatigue is winning, and the exact measures we have taken to stop the pandemic are now too often being flagrantly ignored."
It would be an especially tragic mistake to relax public health guidelines like mask-wearing and social distancing when "we are just on the verge of capitalizing on the culmination of a historic scientific success—the ability to vaccinate the country in just a matter of three or four more months," she added. "How this plays out is up to us."
As The Hill reported Thursday, Thomas Tsai, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that within a few months, "I think we can have a much more, I don't want to say normal, but at least a 'new normal' summer."
Likening "the current situation to the seventh inning stretch of a baseball game," Tsai acknowledged that "progress has been made [and] it's okay to take stock of that." But, he added, "how we play the next two innings determines if this is a single game or turns into a doubleheader."
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Biden on Wednesday denounced the Republican governors of Texas and Mississippi for lifting mask requirements and maximum capacity limits at all businesses in their states just as mass inoculation is within reach. There are now 16 states without mask mandates, according to CNN.
"The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime everything's fine, take off your mask, forget it," the president said. "It still matters."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday tried to defend his widely condemned decision to scrap the Lone Star State's mask mandate and other coronavirus-related regulations with only 7% of residents fully vaccinated, a move that critics characterized as reckless.
"At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we've gained."
—Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC
In an appearance on Fox News, Abbott claimed that "the mask requirement being eliminated isn't going to make that big of a change in the state of Texas," but the GOP official's assertion could not be more wrongheaded, according to public health experts concerned about the spread of more contagious variants.
As Walensky said Wednesday, "The B117 hyper-transmissible variant looms ready to hijack our successes to date."
The B117 variant, first detected in the United Kingdom, "has now been found in 44 U.S. states, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.," according to CNN. "A person with that variant can infect 43% to 90% more people than the older versions of the virus, according to evidence published Wednesday by researchers the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine."
High rates of community transmission are also affecting other continents. Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization's Europe director, said Thursday that the "rapid spread of variants requires increased vigilance, improved testing and isolation of cases, tracing and quarantining contacts, and care."
And the devastating spread of the highly contagious P1 variant throughout Brazil portends danger for the entire world, as the New York Times reported Wednesday.
"Please hear me clearly," Walensky said earlier this week. "At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we've gained."
In a Twitter thread on Thursday, epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding explained the risks associated with failing to address the "cycle of surges and mutations."
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) March 4, 2021
Feigl-Ding—who said "we must remain vigilant"—is among the public health experts arguing that loosening restrictions too early will needlessly postpone the end of the pandemic.
"The next three months are pivotal," said Walensky. "I'm asking you to reach deeply to protect our nation's health, and to protect your loved ones."
Echoing the CDC director, Fauci said that "now is not the time to pull back. Now is the time to really crush this by doing both public health measures and accelerating the vaccinations."
Urging people not to "forget the lessons this pandemic has taught us or its terrible toll," Dr. Barbara Alexander, the president of Infectious Diseases Society of America, said that "we must not relinquish the ground we've gained."