Doctors weigh in on the issue of lifting mask mandates

Federal guidance recommending masking in schools remains in place, but whether and when to lift COVID-19 masking requirements are issues individual states are exploring on their own terms.

One medical expert believes the availability of hospital beds to accommodate COVID-19 patients should help communities decide whether it’s OK to lift mask requirements in schools.

“If there is significant capacity in the hospitals, is it OK to do it? And the answer would be yes,” said Dr. David Agus, a CBS News medical contributor.

Other factors that should be considered when beginning to loosen restrictions, he said, are the number of people who are vaccinated and boosted or who have immunity from coronavirus exposure.

“I think we’re at a point where we can let them down — and it’s going to vary city by city, state by state,” Agus said. “Certainly in California, we still have hospitals full. So we cannot do that at the present time. But other places [are] different.”

One expert who wants to see masks stay on a little longer is Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

He fears an area could experience a surge of the infectious omicron variant if people are not sufficiently cautious.

“Better to wear the mask a month too long than take the mask off a month too soon,” he told WTOP’s Shawn Anderson and Hillary Howard on Tuesday.

Schaffner – who understands that everyone is ready to move on from the pandemic – wants to see sustained decreases in cases, hospitalizations and deaths over the course of four to eight weeks first before everyone puts those masks away.

“We’re at the beginning of the end, not at the end,” Schaffner said. “So let’s keep pushing things down, and then a little bit later, we can relax.”

Individual school districts in Maryland can lift mask requirements when specifically identified criteria are met: if 80% of staff and students are fully vaccinated, if 80% of the full county population is fully vaccinated, or if a county’s COVID transmission rates are low or moderate for 14 consecutive days, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mask mandates remain in place in D.C. through February because Mayor Muriel Bowser said COVID-19’s impact on hospitals, medical providers and facilities is ongoing.

“Hospitalization and deaths lag infections, so the District is facing increases in hospitalized patients with COVID-19, increased ventilator use by persons with COVID-19, and more deaths than the District experienced at the beginning of January,” said the mayor’s Jan. 26 order.

Virginia’s governor issued an executive order lifting mask mandates in the commonwealth’s schools, but many districts in Northern Virginia are requiring them anyway.

WTOP’s Zeke Hartner and Maryland Matters contributed to this report.

More Coronavirus news

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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