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Keep wearing your mask and taking COVID-19 safety precautions, local health experts said Tuesday, after Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was lifting the statewide mask mandate and restrictions on businesses.
“Despite the impending removal of the state mask mandate, we must continue our vigilance with masking, distancing, and hand washing,” said Dr. Mark Escott, Travis County Interim Health Authority. “These remain critical in our ongoing fight against COVID-19.”
Expressing concerns about highly contagious variants of the virus and the need for local health officials to maintain some authority over their local situations — which vary widely from county to county — doctors and health officials cautioned that Texans should not take Abbott’s announcement as a signal to relax the behavior that has lead to a recent decrease in coronavirus case rates and hospitalizations.
That means continuing to stay home when possible, avoid large gatherings, stay separate from vulnerable family members, wash hands frequently, and wear masks in public or around others who don’t live in the same household.
Their advice mirrors that of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which still recommends that people wear masks, even as more people get vaccinated. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has also recently said that double-masking makes sense in light of highly contagious variants.
“We are supporting that the governor does say just stopping the mandates does not end personal responsibility,” said Texas Medical Association President Dr. Diana Fite. “We are highly recommending that people need to follow the science, they need to follow what the CDC recommends at this point ... and those who are the categories that can get vaccinated need to do that as soon as possible.”
In a jubilant press conference, Abbott said the mask mandate and any business restrictions that limited customers would sunset next Wednesday. He added that people should still take the same precautions they have been taking for the past year.
“Removing state mandates does not end personal responsibility, or the importance of caring for your family members and caring for your friends and caring for others in your community,” he said. “Personal vigilance to follow the same standards is still needed to contain COVID. It's just that now state mandates are no longer needed to stay safe.”
Dr. Ivan Melendez, Hidalgo County Health Authority, said it’s premature to abandon safety precautions and hopes Texans can stay patient even in the absence of statewide rules.
“I think that people have a lot more common sense than we give them credit for, but … it’s very hard for human beings not to start socializing and to stop wearing masks,” he said.”I understand they are looking for any sign they can go back to the old ways, but I would just remind them that we’re in the bottom of the ninth, two runs out, and we’re almost there. This isn’t the time to put the bench in. This is the time to continue with the A-Team. Very soon, we’ll be there.”
Others said that while they’re glad Abbott did stress that Texans should stay cautious, the mandate provided an important function that the state may not be ready for yet.
“I think it’s a little bit early, in my opinion, to be removing the masking requirement,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine. “I would have preferred to see our numbers lower, and I would have preferred to see more people vaccinated before we took that leap.”
Dr. John Carlo, CEO of Prism Health North Texas and a member of the state medical association’s COVID-19 task force, agreed it was too soon for Texans to relax their safety practices, adding he is especially concerned about the increasing spread of the U.K. variant of COVID-19, which is thought to be more contagious and perhaps more deadly.
Researchers also say it’s possible that people who already got COVID-19 could be reinfected, and that while the vaccines appear to be effective enough against the variants, new ones that show up as the pandemic stretches on could be more resistant.
Carlo said allowing the variants to spread could undo all the progress that has been made by Texans’ careful behavior in recent months.
A recent study showed that all the variants that have been identified have been recorded in Houston, the first city in the nation where that has happened.
“They are here and they do seem to be more transmissible, and so I think that is a message for us to take on that personal responsibility and wear the mask and prevent the spread of those variants, and we do need to monitor that,” said Dr. David Lakey, vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer at the University of Texas System and a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force. “If those numbers do go up, and they result in additional Texans being hospitalized, the state will need to rethink its overall strategy.”
Although the effects of the vaccination effort on COVID-19 positivity rates and hospitalizations vary in different regions of the state and in different populations, only about 6% of Texans have been fully vaccinated against the disease. Experts have said that between 70% and 90% of the community should be vaccinated before the state achieves herd immunity.
Health experts say that continued caution is vital, particularly at a critical time when Texas is still vaccinating its most vulnerable residents first.
“Whatever the governor has recommended, it should not change what people do in terms of wearing masks or not,” Carlo said. “It’s very clear that we need to continue to wear masks in public places, period. Regardless of whether there’s an order from the governor or not. The bottom line is the individual decision making that has to take place that ultimately makes the outcomes.”
McDeavitt said Texas is battling the viral spread on three fronts: Those who have had the virus and are naturally immune, those who are vaccinated, and those who are taking action such as masking to prevent the spread.
“It’s a three-legged stool,” he said. “I think it’s too early to pull that third leg out of the stool. Now, the governor is balancing economic priorities and health priorities, and I understand that. And maybe he made a right decision. We’ll have to wait and see what happens, what the numbers are in the next couple of weeks.”
Disclosure: Texas Medical Association and University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Correction, March 2, 2021: Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. It is not the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease.