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When to wear masks as cases rise, new variants appear in US

Michael Nason, 29, left, and Donna Nason, 25, right, both of Bakersfield, wear face masks at Union Station Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, in Los Angeles, Calif. COVID-19 is making a comeback in California.

Francine Orr | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

An uptick in Covid cases and hospitalizations in the United States, as well as the emergence of new variants of the virus raise questions about whether Americans should start masking again.

One thing is certain: people infected with Covid should wear masks in the presence of others to prevent the spread of the virus.

For those who are not infected, the decision to wear a mask depends on several elements. This includes your personal risk level, Covid rates in your area and who you might come into contact with, public health experts have said.

Above all, people at high risk of serious illness or death from Covid should consider wearing masks in public and crowded spaces, especially in poorly ventilated areas.

This applies to older adults and people with diabetes, cancer, HIV, a history of heart disease, stroke or other immunocompromised conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Any time we see an increase in cases, we should start by telling very vulnerable populations that they need to prepare for it and be a little more aware of the things they can do to protect themselves. And I think the wearing a mask is part of it,” Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health professor Andrew Pekosz told CNBC.

Indeed, Covid infections in people aged 65 and over and other high-risk groups are driving the rise in cases. hospitalizations and deaths right now, according to Pekosz.

The CDC said new weekly Covid-related hospitalizations in the United States jumped nearly 19% last week, a sixth consecutive week of rising admissions. New Covid variants, like the now-dominant EG.5, or “Eris,” and a handful of XBB strains have fueled this rise. All of these strains are descendants of the omicron variant.

New Covid shots of Pfizer, Modern And Novavax are expected to deploy in mid-September and will likely provide strong protection against these variants. But until then, experts say wearing a mask is an important tool people can use to protect themselves as Covid begins to spread to a higher level nationwide.

This also applies to Americans with normal levels of risk, who should also consider wearing a mask depending on where they are or who they come into contact with.

“If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that masking protects against transmission,” said Dr. Francesca Torriani, professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Diego.

And implementing facility-level mask mandates in some health care facilities and businesses can “really reduce the risk of running into large outbreaks,” according to Pavitra Roychoudhury, professor of laboratory medicine at the Faculty of Medicine. Medicine from the University of Washington.

However, it is unclear how many Americans will choose to wear masks.

Many people don’t seem concerned enough about the recent rise in cases to change their behavior: Covid was low on the list of top public health threats according to a poll released last month by Axios and Ipsos.

The percentage of people wearing a mask occasionally or permanently has fallen to 15%, the survey adds.

When to Hide

All people, regardless of risk level, should consider wearing a mask if certain Covid indicators in their area are high.

The CDC recommends masking based on the number of Covid hospital admissions in a county — data available on the agency’s website.

The CDC recommends everyone wear a mask in jurisdictions that have 20 or more people with Covid in local hospitals per 100,000 people. This currently applies to seven counties in the United States.

The agency also recommends mask-wearing for high-risk people in counties where 10 to 19.9 people per 100,000 are hospitalized with the virus. The threshold applies to 117 counties across the country, including 22 in Florida alone.

People should continue to monitor hospitalization levels in their counties as we approach fall and winter, when the virus typically spreads more widely.

Kilito Chan | Getty Images

Masking decisions should also depend on who people see.

“We need to know when it’s safest to wear a mask for our protection, but also for the protection of others,” said UC San Diego’s Torriani.

For example, it may be a good idea for someone to wear a mask if they are visiting places with many high-risk people, such as nursing homes, nursing homes, care facilities and hospitals.

People should also consider masking up if they are caring for a family member or friend who is at high risk for severe Covid, Roychoudhury says.

People with a normal level of risk might also want to think about what might happen if they choose not to wear a mask.

“For most healthy people, they could think about it in case they actually get Covid,” Roychoudhury said. “They might miss a week of work or feel miserable, so they should consider whether they want to take this chance.”

She noted, however, that several widely available tools can make Covid infections much less severe, such as antiviral drugs and vaccines.

Mask mandates are making a comeback

Nationwide and nationwide mask mandates are no longer in place, and Roychoudhury said she would be “very surprised” if universal masking requirements were reinstated.

But she said businesses, schools and health systems could again implement institutional-level mask mandates, especially if cases and hospitalizations rise even further in the United States.

A few are already doing it: Morris Brown College, a historically black college in Atlanta, announced earlier this month that it would restrict gatherings and implement a two-week mask-wearing mandate due to positive case reports among students.

Healthcare company Kaiser Permanente has reissued a mask mandate at its Santa Rosa, Calif., facility after seeing an increase in the number of patients testing positive for Covid.

The same was true for several New York State hospital systems, including Auburn Community Hospital and United Health Services.

Even Hollywood studio Lionsgate temporarily required its employees to wear masks on two floors of its five-story office building due to a Covid outbreak earlier this month.

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