To Mask or Not to Mask? Mandates and Moving Forward
By Stephanie Kim, Editor-in-Chief
To mask, or not to mask–that is the question.
The past two years have been strenuous for everyone. From the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, we all have been trying our best to keep up with normal activities during the chaos. Trying to obey safety procedures while doing daily activities and worrying about the overall threat the virus poses has had us all a little on edge. We have had to find new ways to do old things in order to keep ourselves and others safe. It seems there has not been a moment of relaxation from the epidemic.
On February 28th of this year, the mask mandate was lifted for St. Louis County–giving many a bit of relief. In a public health advisory post made by Dr. Faisal Khan on the county’s website, it states that two days prior to this “St. Louis County is classified as in the ‘medium’ level of the CDC’s new COVID-19 community levels.” To calculate the community levels, the CDC combines three metrics: the percentage of inpatient beds (staffed) occupied by COVID-19, new COVID-19 admissions per 100,000 population in the past seven days, and new cases per 100,000 population (in the past seven days). First, determine if, in the past seven days, the area has fewer or more than 200 new cases per 100,000 people, then the CDC has a scale that can be used to decide what level (low, medium, or high) the area is at based on the number of new admissions and inpatient beds. The community level is then based on the higher of the new admissions and inpatient beds metrics.
According to the CDC’s COVID-19 County Check on the CDC’s website, St. Louis County has moved to the “low” community level now. On March 7th, 2020, the county had its first confirmed case of COVID-19, and over two years later we are finally at lower levels of infection. In the same advisory post from Dr. Faisal Khan, it says the number of new daily cases has decreased from 2,700 on January 8th, 2022, to 117 on February 25th. Though the mask mandate has been lifted for the county, the post says that the Department of Public Health (DPH) “still recommends wearing face coverings in indoor public settings.” This is because about 1 in 3 St. Louis residents aren’t fully vaccinated (as of February 26th, 2022), very young children aren’t able to get vaccinated, and people at risk of severe disease reside in the community.
The various community levels have different recommendations when it comes to what practices individuals and communities should take. The low level strategies for community prevention include administering the vaccine and to ensure access to testing. Low level strategies also discuss communicating with organizations that serve people who are at high risk for severe disease about rapid testing. When it comes to the household/individual strategies for prevention, the CDC recommends the same ones, as well as staying isolated and getting tested when symptoms are displayed, and talking to a healthcare provider about possible treatments.
In a post from March 7th on the St. Louis County website, the DPH states “Testing continues to be one of our most important tools in fighting COVID-19.” Though everyone should get tested if symptoms develop, those at high risk should ensure access to testing and vaccinations. Those at high risk include those with cancer, cystic fibrosis, neurological or heart conditions, disabilities, tuberculosis, and more. There are many testing centers in St. Louis County that can be found on the county’s website, such as the South County Health Center and multiple library clinics. Those with underlying health conditions, such as asthma or mental health conditions, seem to also have a heightened risk of developing “long Covid” where symptoms linger months after a negative test.
Though the number of cases is lower now, there seem to be other problems increasing. In a post from March 16th, 2022, St. Louis County reported that the number of deaths and overdoses related to opioids has risen–2022 numbers matching those from 2020 (the record high). In regard to helping the situation, the post says, “DPH is focusing its efforts to combat this crisis through prevention, treatment, and harm reduction programs.” The DPH is also working with multiple partners “on a two-year Opioid Action Plan to raise awareness, boost prevention services, expand treatment and enable those in recovery to transition to stable housing, employment, and family life.”
Another growing problem is the sub-variant of Omicron, called BA.2. The sub-variant has been detected in Missouri and there have been confirmed Covid-19 cases in St. Louis caused by it. Though it is more transmissible than Omicron, it seems that previous infection with or vaccination to Omicron protects against the new sub-variant. On the St. Louis County website, a post from March 23rd discusses BA.2 and information still unknown about it. The post also goes on to mention how spring allergies have arrived and the overlapping symptoms that Covid, allergies, a cold, or the flu may cause people to have. This is why testing is so important. The overlapping symptoms may include headaches, cough, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, and fatigue. The CDC’s website has criteria to set them apart.
Many people feel safer with the number of Covid cases going down; however, we must be cautious moving forward. Rushing backward to how things were before the pandemic could very well cause another massive wave. In a post from March 30th on the county’s website, the DPH says, “Although case numbers are currently low, COVID-19 is still active in our community and across the country, and it is not going away. We must learn to live with COVID-19 – and that means changing our behavior based on the lessons we learned during the pandemic.” The post goes on to say, “The truth is, we cannot afford to return to a pre-pandemic ‘normal.’ That is what allowed the virus to wreak so much damage. Instead, we must use the tools that we know help keep us safe.” Moving forward we need to continue practicing safe procedures in order to keep the number of cases down; returning to “normal” will only set us back again.
The week of April 4th-8th, the St. Louis DPH will observe Adolescent Immunization Action Week–the first year it’s happening nationally. The week is to encourage parents and healthcare providers to get adolescent immunizations up to date. In a DPH statement from March 30th speaking about the week, “Adolescent Immunization Action Week is organized by UNITY, a non-profit organization that unites diverse groups around the imperative to protect against all vaccine-preventable diseases to support lifelong health.”
For more information or to access the posts discussed, go to: https://stlouiscountymo.gov/st-louis-county-departments/public-health/covid-19/covid-19-news/