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As states end mask rules, how to make the best choice for you and your family


Nevada is the latest state to announce its statewide mask mandate is going away. It joins a lot of other states, including New York and California, that all announced this week, practically in unison, that their mask mandates are ending. President Biden weighed in on this last night after he was asked on NBC whether states and cities were moving too fast to loosen their mask mandates.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I committed that I would follow the science, the science as put forward by the CDC and the federal people. And I think it's probably premature. But it's - you know, it's a tough call.

MARTIN: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin has been reporting on all things mask and joins us this morning. Hey, Selena.


MARTIN: Is there any rhyme or reason to why all these governors are making these decisions right now, practically at the same time?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: You know, it's a bit of a head scratcher. It is not obvious what all these governors were seeing in the numbers. You know, some public health experts say these moves are justified, including infectious disease physician Emily Landon at the University of Chicago. She has advised Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat who announced this week that mandate would end a few weeks from now. Landon says the COVID-19 trend lines are looking really good, and the risk is going down.

EMILY LANDON: It's OK to say, look. People need a break from this. Let's choose the time when it's going to be safest to give them a break.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: But there are others in the public health world who are really critical. They say this isn't the right time yet. They say the coordination between all of these Democratic governors looks politically convenient with the midterms coming up. And that would be hypocritical since this is the party that claimed it would always follow the science, as Biden said. Gregg Gonsalves is an epidemiologist at Yale.

GREGG GONSALVES: What we're seeing now is state after state roll back mask mandates in the context of sort of mass death happening, right? Cases are down, yes. Hospitalizations are down. But we're basically heading into 2,500 deaths per day in the United States.

MARTIN: And the CDC has stayed firm on its guidance, right?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah. I would say adding to the confusion here is CDC's silence. The agency's director, Rochelle Walensky, has said about mask, really for months, our mask guidance hasn't changed. Look at our website. And you remember what the CDC guidance on masks is, right, Rachel?

MARTIN: Not really, Selena. No (laughter), to be honest.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Don't feel bad. It's not easy to remember. CDC guidance is if you live in an area where community spread is high or substantial, you should mask indoors in public, and you should also pay attention to local hospital capacity, vaccination rates, capacity for early detection of variants and at-risk populations. Cynthia Baur, a professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in health literacy and communication, told me CDC's guidance for people with five metrics to think about is way too complicated.

CYNTHIA BAUR: It's too many things. And yet they haven't told us how to weight those things. If there's five things, do I weight each thing one-fifth or 20%, right?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says if you're going to put the responsibility of making this risk calculation on regular people, you need to give them one metric to think about. And you need to give them one place to find it.

MARTIN: Right. So what is that thing? I mean, I think that would be so helpful. If you just had one metric to measure, then you could make your own decisions for yourself and your family.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I know. But I got so many different answers from people on what that one thing could be.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Some said community spread. Just see if there are a lot of cases. Others said with omicron, there might not - that might not be the where you want to look. So pay attention to hospitalizations. And this is a problem for individuals and businesses and local governments and other institutions that are now, pretty much everywhere in the country, going to have to make this calculus on their own.

MARTIN: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin, thank you.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.