Several health officials are recommending that people dust off masks as respiratory viruses are pushing many hospitals to their limits, but many Americans seem unwilling to do so.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued a health notice recommending that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask in indoor public places and crowded outdoor spaces.
“The holiday season is all about being together and there is a way to come together safely, even when 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 wearing a mask when indoors or in crowds and staying home if you’re not feeling well. Also, get tested before you meet and get treatment quickly if you test positive. We want everyone to have a happy and, above all, healthy holiday.”
The move comes as COVID-19, the flu, and the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is sickening millions of Americans and putting increased pressure on health care systems. Some refer to the circulation of all three viruses as a “tripledemia.”
“The flu is 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 about 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 rising flu, RSV and COVID-19 cases is pushing hospitals beyond 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 at a news conference Thursday.
Los Angeles County officials said last week they would not issue an indoor mask mandate despite rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. Instead, it will stick with its “strong recommendation,” according to Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.
Ferrer left the mandate option on the table, saying it would be implemented if 10% of the county’s hospital beds are filled with COVID-19 patients. Coronavirus patients currently occupy nearly 7% of hospital beds.
Last week, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also encouraged the wearing of masks, a recommendation that has become rarer from the agency as many in the Biden administration have moved away from messages about the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We also encourage you to wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask to prevent the spread of respiratory illness,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a call with reporters.
He added that “you don’t need to wait for CDC action to put on a mask.”
Still, many jurisdictions are showing no interest in recommending masks again as many Americans want to look beyond the pandemic, even as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are on the rise.
According to a recent Axios-Ipsos pollAbout half of Americans say they have returned to their pre-pandemic routines, while only a third report wearing a mask some or all of the time when they leave the house.
Axios reported that nearly half of Americans believe there is a high 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 warns that the high circulation of the three viruses poses challenges for the near future.
“We are seeing a clear increase in COVID infections in virtually every region of the country, up 40% in recent weeks. So three challenges coming at once,” Ashish Jha, White House COVID-19 response coordinator he said at an event on Thursday. “There are going to be some bumpy days ahead.”
While they support mask recommendations in some circumstances, U.S. health officials don’t expect widespread mask mandates to return, especially given sharp objections from Republicans and others who say the New variants of COVID-19 are not as severe as the original strain, and levels of community protection are high from previous vaccinations and infections.
“I’m not talking about imposing anything,” said leading infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci. saying NBC News last week. “I’m talking about the common sense of saying, ‘You know, I really don’t want to risk getting infected, let alone infecting someone who is a vulnerable member of my family.’ ”
The majority of the country, 72% of counties, are experiencing a “high” level of transmission of COVID-19, according to to the CDC. That’s a significant jump from the week before, likely because people gathered over the recent holidays and colder weather pushed more people inside.
But fewer than 10% of counties are considered to be under the CDC’s recommendation to wear masks indoors in public areas under the agency’s “community levels,” which is the guidance it adopted in February that differs from the transmission levels.