As BA.5 spreads, experts wonder: Where are the masks?

Some experts are questioning why the federal government is not taking a stronger stance on masking amid rising transmission and hospitalization rates driven by the highly transmissible BA.5 omicron subvariant

"There are no public health measures at all. We're in a very peculiar spot, where the risk is vivid and it's out there, but we've let our guard down and we've chosen, deliberately, to expose ourselves and make ourselves more vulnerable," Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, an epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, told The Washington Post.

Most Americans should be wearing or considering wearing masks in indoor public spaces based on guidelines associated with COVID-19 risk levels defined by the CDC. The levels are based on three combined metrics: the amount of local hospital beds in use, hospital admission rates and the total number of new COVID-19 cases.As of July 7, 31.9 percent of the population lived in an area with a high COVID-19 risk level, meaning they should wear a mask indoors, according to the CDC. Another 41.6 percent of the population lives in an area with medium risk, meaning they should consider wearing a mask based on their personal risk factors. 

While only one-third of the U.S. population lives in areas with high COVID-19 risk, CDC's map of community transmission paints a more concerning picture, showing 89.1 percent of people live in areas with high transmission. COVID-19 hospitalizations have steadily increased to reach the highest national average since early March, with a daily average of 37,472 people hospitalized with COVID-19 as of July 11, according to HHS data collected by The New York Times

Experts have expressed concern over high levels of COVID-19 apathy among Americans, many of whom have abandoned public health precautions such as masking and social distancing two-plus years into the pandemic. Mask mandates on airplanes and other public transportation have been gone since April. Meanwhile, air travel is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels. 

"Despite the [more than] 16 [percent] increase in U.S. COVID hospitalizations (1,300 more added yesterday) over the past 10 days, a 17.5 [percent] test positivity, and extremely high community transmission, the CDC has yet to issue a BA.5 warning," Eric Topol, MD, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego, tweeted July 8. 

The CDC did not immediately respond to Becker's request for comment regarding experts' calls for the agency to communicate more urgency surrounding BA.5. 

Some cities in areas where hospital admission rates are rising are anticipating a return of indoor mask mandates. Los Angeles County remains in the CDC's medium community risk level for COVID-19, though health officials said in a statement "it is looking more likely" cases and admissions will continue to increase throughout the month. If the hospital admissions rate in Los Angeles County reaches or surpasses 10 admissions per 100,000 people per week, the county would move into the CDC's high risk community level. 

"Should the county remain in this high level designation for two consecutive weeks, universal indoor masking … would be implemented across the county," the county's health department said. 

As of July 7, there were 9.7 new hospital admissions per 100,000 people in Los Angeles County, according to the CDC. 

New York City's five boroughs — Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island — are all in the CDC's high level designation for community transmission. In response, New York City health officials stopped short of a mask mandate but renewed an indoor mask advisory July 8, NBC New York reports. 


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