Mask mandates to return to Philadelphia amid rising COVID cases. Should we be worried?

If you’re feeling a sense of pandemic deja vu, you’re not alone.

Less than a month after mask mandates were lifted across the county, the city of Philadelphia announced Monday that it would reinstate a mandate next week amid a 50% increase in reported COVID-19 cases in the past 10 days

“It’s good that they’re being proactive,” said Abby Rudolph, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Temple University in Philadelphia. “A lot of people are testing at home, and we’re not capturing all the cases. When we do see an increase, it’s likely that the increase is a little bit higher than what’s reported.”

While the city is the first to bring back mask mandates this spring, it’s not the only area experiencing a rise in cases. National weekly case counts, which dipped below 200,000 at the start of the month, have risen to above 245,000, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins data.

Public health experts say they’re monitoring the situation, but aren’t worried – yet.

“I’m not overly concerned right now,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said Monday on NBC News’ “Today.” “I think we’ve got to be careful, but I don’t think this is a moment where we have to be excessively concerned.”
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Most of the increases are in Northeastern states that boast high vaccination rates, including Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey, and in Washington, D.C.

These states and the District of Columbia were among the first to get hit by the original omicron variant earlier this year, public health experts say, and residents also were some of the first in the country to get vaccinated and boosted. That immunity from vaccination and prior infection may have waned, leaving them vulnerable to the BA.2 variant and causing a rise in cases.

“This is not unexpected,” White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci told “This Week” co-anchor Jonathan Karl on Sunday. “When you have a highly transmissible virus like BA.2 and you have pulling back on mitigation methods at the same time there is waning immunity, we’re going to see an uptick.”

Fauci said he doesn’t expect increased cases will translate to more hospitalizations and deaths, but some health experts say that depends on how states respond.

“CDC mask mapping numbers are about preventing overwhelming hospital infrastructure, which is important, but we may need to consider masking a slightly different way to keep cases down,” said Jodie Guest, professor and vice chair of the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health.

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Rudolph is not convinced mask mandates will reverse the increase in cases because most transmission occurs in private gatherings, not public spaces. But it’s better than nothing, she said.

“It’s the lowest barrier of protection that we have,” she said. “We want to be proactive, not reactive, so we can prevent the most severe consequences.”

Guest also urged people to get a COVID-19 booster and those eligible to consider a second one. The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off last month on second boosters for everyone over 50.

Scientific research doesn’t offer much guidance on a fourth shot for those with a healthy immune system, but Guest said the decision to get a second booster is a personal one, and the risks of getting COVID-19 outweigh any risks from the shot.

“There’s no downside to it,” she said. “If you work in health care, if you live with someone who is immunocompromised, if you live with a child who can’t get vaccinated, these are all reasons to consider getting it.”

Health experts say cases are likely to rise throughout the rest of the country if mitigation measures remain minimal, but it’s unclear whether that would result in another surge or fizzle out after a subtle rise.

“The next month is going to be really critical to watch,” Guest said. “Keeping (masks) in the front of people’s minds is important.”



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