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As COVID-19 cases drop across the country, mandates are loosened

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The number of new coronavirus cases has dropped more than 75% since the highs of mid-January. Hospitalizations in this country are down. And deaths are starting to decline, too. Some of the states that have had the strictest COVID restrictions are starting to dial back. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us, as she does most Mondays. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So numbers are dropping pretty dramatically at this point. Mask mandates are being lifted. Dare we say there is light shining upon us now?

AUBREY: (Laughter) It seems that way. I mean, there are very few states that still have statewide mask mandates. It seems every day we hear another announcement on plans to end a requirement from Democratic governors, including in New York, Illinois. California is set to end its indoor mask mandate tomorrow. The large retail chain Walmart ended its masking requirement for fully vaccinated employees, unless it's required by a state or local government. But lifting school mask mandates is turning out to be more controversial. Teachers have been pushing back against lifting the mask mandate in California. Oregon's governor has said the mask mandate in schools will be lifted at the end of March. And some pediatric infectious disease experts say it makes sense to keep kids masked for now. Here's Dr. Judy Guzman of Oregon Health & Science University.

JUDY GUZMAN: We know that kids are very good at sharing infectious diseases in the school setting. So we need to see higher immunization rates in kids before we start removing masks.

AUBREY: Kids have become accustomed to wearing masks at school. It's kind of a habit for them. And, Guzman says, at a time when there's still about 2,200 COVID deaths a day and so many unvaccinated kids, there shouldn't be a rush.

MARTIN: And currently, most young children are still not vaccinated, right?

AUBREY: That's right. Only 23% of kids 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated now. And for children under 5, parents are still waiting. On Friday, the FDA canceled a meeting that had been scheduled to review Pfizer's data in children under 5. Advisers were going to consider data from a clinical trial that included children who had received two doses of vaccine. But Pfizer actually asked for the delay after new data showed there had been more infections among kids in the trial amid this omicron wave. So two doses did not appear to provide sufficient protection against infection. Now remember, this is a tenth of the adult dose. Now the FDA will wait for data on a third dose before making a decision about authorization. This is expected, Rachel, sometime this spring, around April. And given the slower timeline, some experts say it's another reason masking is still helpful in children.

MARTIN: OK. Let's talk about where federal mask mandates are still in place, airports - obviously, if you get on a plane, you still got to wear a mask - trains, other transportation hubs, right?

AUBREY: That's right. The TSA mask mandate is in effect through March 18. As you say, it applies on airplanes, airports, commuter bus and rails. It is unlikely that masks will completely disappear after this. I mean, though masks have become one of the fault lines in our culture war, if you take away the politicization and you just look at the science, there's a lot more known on just how effective high-quality masks, such as N95s, can be against the spread of COVID and other respiratory diseases. That's why Dr. Judy Guzman says going forward, seasonal masking could become more normal in certain situations.

GUZMAN: Before the pandemic, we would see outbreaks in classrooms for all sorts of viruses, and actually even bacteria - like, things like strep throat. So maybe during outbreaks of things like strep throat in a classroom, adding masking to the response plan could certainly be very effective.

AUBREY: Similarly, people might opt to wear a mask on a crowded metro car, bus or plane even if there isn't a mandate - in the middle of flu season or if there is another COVID outbreak.

MARTIN: So masking in some form may stick around, Allison. But what about all the tracking systems that were put in place to slow the spread of the virus?

AUBREY: You know, I think the way that we are alerted to outbreaks or exposures in our own communities will be forever changed by this pandemic. Early on, the term contact tracing was brand new. Who had heard of that...

MARTIN: Right.

AUBREY: ...This idea of public health workers reaching out to people who tested positive and their contacts to try to contain the spread. At one point earlier in the pandemic, the U.S. had about 70,000 people doing contact tracing. And in places such as Teton County, Wyo., where they've had a very low death rate, contact tracers were able to reach out to every person who tested positive. I spoke to the county's health director, Jodie Pond, who says it made a big difference in her community.

JODIE POND: I think it was very, very effective. We had retired physicians and doctors call people every day to make sure that they were doing OK, that their symptoms were resolving. So it was a whole community effort.

AUBREY: You know, amid omicron, she said, it became impossible to keep up with all the cases. And many contact-tracing programs have scaled back or are now coming to an end. But there's an infrastructure in place now. And it would be possible to bring this back in some form in the event of another outbreak.

MARTIN: Speaking of which, I understand you've been looking into sort of an unusual way that public health departments can spot potential outbreaks, right?

AUBREY: You know, amid the pandemic, scientists have been doing more regular surveillance of wastewater because everyone goes to the bathroom. And this is a way scientists can detect if the amount of virus is rising or falling. And they can even now identify specific variants in the waste. I spoke to Aaron Packman. He's an engineer at Northwestern University. He told me that amid this pandemic, they've ushered in massive investments in wastewater surveillance, which has really helped to create a standard way for public health officials to use the data coming from waste.

AARON PACKMAN: This is a really efficient way to get kind of a quick snapshot or an approximate snapshot of infections that may be prevalent in the community.

AUBREY: He envisions that this could be expanded. It's a way to get a kind of quick snapshot or an approximate snapshot of the infections that may be prevalent in the community.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey. She joins us most Mondays to update us on the state of the pandemic. Allison, thanks. We appreciate it.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUAN WASI'S "NIGHT LINES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.