- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2022

Philadelphia will reimpose its indoor mask mandate and the new White House COVID-19 coordinator said Monday that an extension of the federal mask mandate on public transportation is possible, signaling that mandatory face coverings may remain a fixture of American life.

Officials in Pennsylvania’s largest city said Monday that the mask mandate will take effect in public indoor spaces on April 18 due to a 50% spike in cases over the last 10 days. Fueled by the BA.2 variant, the spike raised the virus threat-level under Philadelphia’s tiered system, triggering the mandate.

“This is our chance to get ahead of the pandemic. To put our masks on until we have more information about the severity of this new variant and to choose to protect each other throughout this pandemic,” Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said.

She asked businesses to dig out their old “masks required” signs and hang them in their window as the city gets one week to prepare for the rule. The commissioner said the city will monitor hospitalizations to see whether it makes sense to ease up on the mandate.

The city’s decision is a notable reversal and sparked a backlash from the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, which said affected businesses were not consulted and the mandate is a “major blow” to businesses banking on a sustained springtime recovery from the pandemic.

The White House and most other cities and states are attempting to manage the virus as another infectious disease instead of cheering on mandates.

Few mandates remained on the books after the holiday-period omicron wave subsided, though some colleges reimposed mask rules and the federal government must soon decide whether to keep mandating masks on planes, trains and buses.

Dr. Ashish Jha, a public health expert who replaced management expert Jeff Zients as White House virus coordinator, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will lead the way in determining whether the administration will extend its transportation mandate.

“I think it is absolutely on the table,” he told NBC’s “Today Show.”

The mask mandate on public transportation had been set to expire March 18, but the Transportation Security Administration extended it a month on the advice of the CDC, setting up another critical deadline to renew it or let it expire on the same day the Philadelphia mandate returns.

Major airlines have been lobbying President Biden to ditch the mandate, citing the difficulty of policing passengers who violate the rule and the mismatch between rules for transportation versus many settings in society where the CDC does not recommend universal mask wearing.

Flight attendants have made similar arguments in lawsuits over the rule and say it is difficult to wear masks for hours on end.

Dr. Jha said the decision on whether to extend the rule will start with CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and “the framework that the CDC scientists create, and we’ll make a decision collectively based on that.”

The Philadelphia move and pending transportation decision come at a tricky juncture in the pandemic fight. On the one hand, cases and hospitalizations are at pandemic lows and the White House and local governments are trying to get back to life as usual.

There is a concern, however, over the rise in reported infections in places like New York City, Mayor Eric Adams reported a positive test Sunday, and Washington, where a large number of people in Mr. Biden’s circle have recently tested positive.

Dr. Jha said he is “not overly concerned” about BA.2 even as the mandates remain on the table.

“We’ve got to watch this very carefully. Obviously, I never like to see infections rising. I think we’ve got to be careful, but I don’t think this is a moment where we have to be excessively concerned,” he told NBC.

The CDC recently revised its mask guidance into a three-tiered system based on hospitalizations and the level of spread in communities.

Universal mask-wearing is not recommended in most of the country, making public transportation a notable exception as the White House tries to push vaccination to avoid severe outcomes, instead of fixating on cases.

Vaccines are considered the first line of defense against severe COVID-19 disease but they haven’t been able to stiff-arm infection as well as hoped. That’s left masks as a central tool in government efforts to tamp down the spread to vulnerable persons.

Americans wear a wide variety of masks, from the high-grade N-95 masks, which Mr. Biden made available for free at select pharmacies and community health centers, to the cloth or surgical masks.

The CDC released a study in February that found a properly fitting N95 or KN95 mask reduced the odds of getting infected by 83% compared to no mask at all. A surgical mask reduced the odds by 66% and a cloth mask by 56%.

Linsey C. Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, said the CDC findings were “consistent with laboratory studies and our physics-based understanding of how masks work.”

She said people should wear an N95, KN95 or South Korea-made KF94 for the best protection when in indoor settings with other people.

“This will greatly reduce your risk of becoming infected,” she said. “A surgical mask is next-best. Cloth masks are highly variable. It is still possible to become infected if you are wearing an N95 — it filters out at least 95% of particles, not 100% of them — but it is much, much less likely.”

Vaccines for COVID-19 have managed to stave off severe illness though have proven less effective at staving off infection or mild illness and their effectiveness tends to wane after several months, prompting a series of booster recommendations and hope for a better generation of vaccines down the road.

A British health agency recently said two doses of Pfizer or Moderna were 65%-70% effective against symptomatic infection from omicron but that dropped to around 10% by 25 weeks after the second dose. A booster from these messenger-RNA vaccines was 60%-75% effective in the period two to four weeks after the shot, a level that dropped to 25%-40% 15 or more weeks after the booster.

Effectiveness against hospitalization from omicron dropped from 71% within two weeks of vaccination from an mRNA vaccine to 54% after five months, according to the CDC. A booster bumped protection against hospitalization up to 91% but protection slid to 78% after four months, the agency found.

King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, keeps close track of infections, hospitalizations and deaths with an age-adjusted tracker and says unvaccinated persons are 1.2 times as likely to get infected than persons who are vaccinated and boosted, though the difference is much wider when judging bad outcomes.

The unvaccinated were 13 times as likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 and 25 times as likely to die.

The BA.2 variant that is taking over in the U.S. appears to spread faster than the original version of omicron but does not cause more severe disease.

U.S. daily case counts have ticked upward of late, especially in the Northeast, but the overall count is still around 30,000 per day — the lowest since last July.

Right now the U.S. government, itself, seems to be among the hardest hit.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she tested negative Monday and will come out of isolation Thursday after recovering from an infection that popped up the previous Thursday.

Yet Jessica Rosenworcel, chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission, reported a new positive test Monday, making her the latest high-profile person in Washington to get infected.

“It’s been mild and I’m grateful for the protection being fully vaxxed and boosted provides,” she tweeted. “I’ll follow CDC guidance and for now will carry on with the work of the FCC at home. If you haven’t yet, please get vaccinated.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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