In spite of recent warnings from public health officials, Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the state’s mask mandate, effective March 10. In response, we ask: What evidence did the governor use to change policy?
We know that public health policy has been far more effective in dealing with the pandemic than individual actions alone. We understand the push to stimulate our economy and support our businesses. So why not start with increasing businesses’ allowed capacity to 100% while maintaining the mask mandate?
Reports from governmental agencies, research scientists and international public health scholars affirm that masks reduce the transmission of COVID-19. Lifting the mask mandate so early in our vaccine distribution campaign may unleash another wave of the pandemic. So again, we ask, is it worth the risk?
We continue to see substantial spread of COVID-19 in Tarrant County and beyond. Data confirm the current rise of more contagious COVID variants, and evidence suggests that cases nationally are no longer steadily declining but showing slight increases. New global infections increased recently in the Americas, Europe, southeast Asia and the eastern Mediterranean.
Every effort we make to prevent infections will prevent new mutations and evolution of dangerous variants – we are in a battle of time.
Recent estimates indicate that vaccination alone is insufficient to prevent further transmission and ultimately more deaths. We must continue to implement multiple mitigation strategies, including masks, while we vaccinate as efficiently as possible for the least deadly path to herd immunity. Lifting restrictions this early could result in up to 29 million additional cases of infection nationwide, some deadly.
Eleven months ago, the governor committed to a collaborative approach for policy decisions “based on hard data and the expertise of our chief medical advisers.” In lifting the mask mandate, Abbott did not indicate an evidence-based public health guideline directing his decision, nor did he directly consult with his chief medical advisers for informed consensus on policy.
Instead, he emphasized availability of vaccines and antibody therapy, reduced hospitalizations statewide and “safe practices that Texans are using.” He also highlighted two data points: 5.7 million Texans vaccinated and up to 10 million Texans recovered.
These data points do not capture the full picture. As of March 2, the CDC metric of number of vaccinated per 100,000 residents ranked Texas 48th in the country, with 6.8% of Texans vaccinated
This fraction of the population only includes those in Phase 1A and 1B of vaccination plans. Although teachers were recently deemed eligible for vaccination, we have yet to expand to the general population. So, masks are necessary to protect the majority of the Texas population, including frontline workers who are more vulnerable without the mask mandate.
Our policymakers and leaders need to reinforce the value of the mask mandate and avoid one more cause for division in our nation. Now is the time to sustain the willingness of the population to adhere to public health guidance, reinforced by the mask mandate.
Changing policy without solid evidence is premature and costly in this race against time.
We applaud collaborative attempts to make accurate, timely policy decisions in the best interest of the public and our economic stability. We ask all leaders to ensure the public’s health by continuing to uphold evidence-based guidelines through this pandemic.
Good policy, such as the mask mandate, helps make the healthy choice the easy choice. Without it, individuals and businesses are left to fight for the healthy choice on their own. As Texas reopens to full business operations, let’s support Texans in making healthy choices by continuing the mask mandate.
Gina K. Alexander is an associate professor at the Harris College of Nursing & Health Sciences at Texas Christian University. Carol Howe is an associate professor. Sharon B. Canclini is an assistant professor of professional practice. Jim Davis is chief of the Fort Worth Fire Department. Cody Whittenburg is environmental manager for the city of Fort Worth. Also contributing were TCU Nursing faculty Pamela J. Frable, an associate professor, and Danielle Walker, an assistant professor.