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Should we wear masks again? Covid guidelines experts recommend

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The uptick of Covid transmissions this summer has raised questions about whether or not certain safety measures such as wearing masks should be brought back.

Several companies and schools nationwide decided to reinstate Covid mask mandates in light of the rising hospitalisations including Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Lionsgate headquarters in Los Angeles, Kaiser Permanente across all California locations, and several hospitals in the state of New York. Workers and attendees at these locations are now required to wear masks upon entry.

“It is ticking up a little bit, but it’s not something that we need to raise any alarm bells over,” Dr David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the Seattle Times. Although many health experts like Dr Dowdy don’t believe people have cause to worry, some have expressed their concerns.

While many people have forgone wearing masks, UC San Francisco infectious diseases expert, Dr Peter Chin-Hong, cautioned the Los Angeles Times that swearing off masks for good would put people at higher risk of contracting the virus, elaborating: “Right now, when things are heating up all around the country with Covid, you might want to think about [masking at] public transit and airports.”

Two new variants have emerged to the concern of public health officials. The World Health Organization (WHO) has cautioned the public on two new variants, EG.5 and BA.2.86, that have emerged. Earlier in August, the former was classified as a “variant of interest” by the organization. BA.286 has spread to the US, UK, Denmark, Israel, and South Africa, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) risk summary assessment. In the same report, the CDC reported that as of 23 August the BA.2.86 variant is the more infectious of the two, and wrote that those with existing immunity from Covid – either from vaccines or prior infections – were more likely to get infected.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the number of Covid hospitalisations has risen an estimated 12 per cent weekly over the course of the last three weeks. But, compared to the heights of the pandemic, these reported numbers are rather low. Covid-19 hospital admissions were at 9,056 for the week ending 29 July, a number that is marginally less than past peaks such as 44,000 weekly hospital admissions in early January, or during the omicron surge of January 2022, in which there were 150,000 admissions.

As of 19 August, hospital admissions across the US have continued to rise by at least 15,000 due to the new variants. While a far cry from the heights of the pandemic, the numbers signal that the public should exercise caution all the same.

It’s highly likely that, due to a lack of ongoing data collection nationally, the numbers may not truly reflect the number of people contracting Covid. Since President Joe Biden declared that Covid is no longer a national emergency in April, the majority of federal authorities have scaled back hypervigilance and data tracking, so the CDC and many states have not been tracking the number of positive test results since May.

Many health experts stress that people should remain vigilant.

“Even though the declared emergency is over, Covid is still circulating – and it probably will be for quite some time. And so if you really don’t want to get sick, you can protect yourself by wearing a mask when you’re indoors,” Dr Sara Cody, the Santa Clara County public health director and health officer, told the LA Times. “But it’s, at this point, an individual decision.”

Dr Cody said that wearing masks even only in a high-risk environment is better than nothing at all “because the more people are together, the greater the chance that one of those people is going to be infectious and spread Covid to others”.

Health experts also urged people to be respectful of those who choose to wear masks, especially since you never know their reasons for doing so. In Los Angeles, the Department of Health encouraged individuals to consider “risk levels of close family or friends they spend time with, and the nature of the event or location” when deciding whether or not to wear a mask.

If you are up to date on your vaccinations, the likelihood of you contracting coronavirus is lower, while those who have not received a booster shot since the September 2022 omicron surge are urged to schedule an appointment for overdue booster shots. Dr Chin-Hong suggests that, for those who are either immunocompromised or older, it’s better to get the 2022 boosters now rather than wait for the 2023 formula.

The 2023 version of the vaccine will be designed to combat the latest dominant Omicron subvariant, XBB.1.5, which according to The New York Times, has reportedly seen a wave in hospitalisations on the East Coast.

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