Even with Monday’s federal court ruling that masks will no longer be required on public transit, in public transit hubs or in airports, the debate over COVID-19 mask mandates is far from over.

The Illinois executive order 2022-06 will be amended to reflect those changes, with local municipalities retaining the right to establish their own mitigations, including masking requirements on public transportation.

The Justice Department, meanwhile, has filed an appeal that seeks to reverse the judge's ruling. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had asked the department to appeal the decision, issuing a statement Wednesday that said the mandate "remains necessary for the public health."

Dr. Loren Hughes, a former healthcare executive from Edwardsville and a member of the Madison County Health Advisory Committee, can understand both side of the debate.

“On the day that the judge ruled against the mask mandate to fly on an airplane, you could hear the cheering at every airport in the country,” Hughes said. “There is no question that the COVID fatigue we’ve talked about for so long hasn’t gone away.

“Everyone wants to move past this pandemic, whether the virus is ready for us to move on or not. We’ve settled into two camps as it relates to mask mandates. One group is very much about being as safe as possible and support mask wearing mandates for all indoor activities. Then you have a large and growing group of people who say, ‘I’m over this mask wearing’ and want to get back to normal.”

As a medical professional, Hughes firmly believes that there is still a time and a place for wearing masks based on each individual’s situation, and he urges people not to let down their guard.

“The reality is that the virus has not gone away, and it’s continuing to change and mutate,” Hughes said. “In the U.S., we’ve had a 39% increase in COVID cases in the past week, with some states predicting larger increases. The last widespread wave of infection came in the form of the omicron variant, it rapidly mutated into the stealth version of omicron which is currently causing most cases of Covid. Incredibly, that version has now mutated into twenty-one more versions of omicron.

“One of these subvariants being watched right now is called BA.2.12.1 which has two spike protein changes that make it stick tightly to the receptors on our cells. That change makes it very resistant to the first wave of antibodies that come from vaccination or prior infection. Luckily, like the original version of omicron, it’s not making people that sick.”

Hughes also noted studies which estimate that about 50% of the U.S. population has had some version of omicron.

“That created a lot of natural immunity, in addition to the immunity from those who have been vaccinated and boosted. This has built an immune wall that is protective to us in terms of severity of disease, although I can’t really say we’ve reached herd immunity yet,” Hughes said.

“I feel like we’re doing a lot to help us get through the pandemic in terms of natural immunity and immunizations, but I still encourage people to get their boosters to keep their level of neutralizing antibodies as high as possible. Beyond that, we need to keep looking at the environmental factors we can control like ventilation, filtration and distance.”

Hughes emphasized his belief that individuals should be able to make a choice about whether to wear a mask, and not have to be forced to do so through a mandate.

“We’re at a point where people can give consent – we now know what the risks and benefits of each of these factors provide and how their choice will affect them. We can make our own educated decision to wear or not to wear a mask,” Hughes said.

“Anyone who has an autoimmune disease, high-risk factors like heart disease, asthma, or obesity, are over the age of 50, or if you have kids in your household who are younger than five and not eligible for vaccines, you should strongly consider wearing a mask in certain situations.”

While supporting the right to choose to wear a mask, Hughes added that he’s a believer in the effectiveness of masks. He noted that we have two years of data to show how the right masks work to protect us.

Hughes referred to several studies done over the past two years about wearing masks on airplanes, both before and after the mask mandates were issued.

“Most experts agree that airplanes are one of the safest places to be indoors because the air is completely exchanged 10 to 20 times every hour. Hospitals also have air exchangers, but they only average about six times an hour,” Hughes said.

“A study was released showing the impact of masks during an average two-hour airplane flight. It showed that if everyone on a flight was maskless, there is about a 2% overall chance of getting COVID if there was someone on the flight who was positive. However, if someone sat next to you and had COVID with neither of you were wearing a mask, then you would have a 60% chance of getting COVID from that fellow passenger. Not knowing who that person could be makes a strong case for continuing to wear masks in tight indoor spaces.”

Hughes also cautioned that there are numerous instances where the air safety factor on an airplane decreases dramatically.

“The air exchangers on airplanes are shut down during loading and emptying of the plane because the engines are not running. There isn’t good air exchange during that process,” Hughes said. “Some of the highest levels of stagnant air on airplanes is when the plane is either taxing to the gate or going out to the runway. If someone on a plane has COVID and they’re coughing, that’s when your chances of getting the virus from them is the highest.

“The studies also looked at 12-hour international flights and they found you have a 99% chance of getting COVID if you’re sitting next to a positive patient. Even if you are the only one masking, it can cut the risk by 65% in all settings.” 

Hughes said that he and his wife will continue to wear masks on airplanes when they fly over the spring and summer.

“I don’t care if there is or isn’t a mandate at that time, I’m going to wear a mask,” Hughes said. “Not wearing a mask in that setting is not worth the risk for me.”

Hughes also believes that it’s still advisable for high-risk individuals to wear a mask while taking any public transit, even if the mandates have been lifted.

“Any time you’re in a closed container, whether it’s an airplane, a bus or train, there is a lot of particulate matter flying around,” Hughes said. “All it takes is one person (with COVID) to cough or breathe hard and everyone is breathing those particles.

“lnfluenza travels like crazy through public transportation as well, but we seem to have tolerated that in the past. But after this pandemic, I’m sure that some will always wear masks (while taking public transportation).”

On a local level, Madison County Transit has adjusted its policies to reflect the federal court ruling that masks will no longer be required on public transit or in public transit hubs.

“We are following the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) guidance and they ended their directive (for a mask mandate),” MCT Managing Director SJ Morrison said. “Since the directive is no longer in place, we followed suit and currently, employees and passengers do not have to wear face coverings on our vehicles and in our transit facilities.

“We have employees who are continuing to wear masks and that’s totally acceptable. People need to do what they think is appropriate to keep themselves safe and healthy.”

As Morrison expected, the feedback from both MCT employees and passengers about the lifting of the mask mandate has been mixed.

“Some people are thrilled, and some people are disappointed,” Morrison said. “By and large, I think that until we have a directive from FTA (Federal Transit Administration) or TSA like we did before, we will continue to allow folks to ride without masks.”

Glen Carbon Village Administrator Jamie Bowden, who has had to deal with the effects of mask mandates for the past two years, is hopeful that things are trending in the right direction.

“We’re a local government and we follow the CDC regulations and state mandates,” Bowden said. “We follow the CDC protocols for those who test positive for COVID. From a governmental perspective, it’s obviously easier to operate without a COVID shutdown and to communicate without a mask.

“I don’t have a political opinion (on mask mandates) either way. I just want those regulations and mandates to be consistent. Public health is a concern for everybody, but things seem to be getting back to normal and that’s good for the operation of government.”

Likewise, Edwardsville Mayor Art Risavy is encouraged that most mask mandates have been lifted.

“The City of Edwardsville rescinded its mask ordinance early this year and we’ll continue to abide by state guidelines,” Risavy said. “We see (COVID) numbers moving in a positive direction and we’re really excited and what that means for our local businesses and restaurants because they need the support. Seeing people out and about has really been a positive thing for us.

“At our city council meeting the other night, the aldermen were excited to be approving events coming up this summer, including the Futures tennis tournament and the Criterium (bicycle race), and there are many other outside events such as Bonifest (from St. Boniface Catholic Church). People are getting out again and doing the things they enjoy.”

For those who choose to wear masks, Hughes noted that all masks are not created equal, and that cloth masks are simply not as effective.

“Now that the supply chain issues regarding masks have been resolved, I don’t think there’s any good reason for choosing to wear a cloth mask (over more protective masks),” Hughes said. “All large studies show about 20% protection from large particles with a cloth mask.

“Everyone choosing to wear masks at this point should be wearing a KN95 or N95 mask or at least a surgical-type mask that fits properly. For those who have decided to use them for transportation, putting a mask on for even just a short time is a benefit compared to not wearing a mask and risking the chance of getting sick and missing a week of work.”

Hughes added that the lifting of mask mandates doesn’t mean that the pandemic has ended.

“I’m glad that there is a choice about whether to wear a mask, but I just hope that people understand that this virus is not gone,” Hughes said. “Madison County is in the green zone for community level spread right now. We are all enjoying the freedoms of fewer COVID restrictions. While this is good, be aware of the local news and pay extra attention if we move into a yellow or red zone of spread. These county-wide colors are based on the number of cases, hospital admissions and ICU admissions. They represent the COVID transmission level in the community.

“If you’re in a green zone, the odds of contracting the virus are much less, but the mutations keep occurring. We’re constantly playing a catch-up game and can only see new dangerous mutations after they start to impact our caseloads. The No. 1 best protection is still vaccination and boosters, but common sense-wearing of masks in certain situations can be helpful as well.”

Source link