Ashish Jha urges states to wait a ‘few weeks’ before lifting mask mandates



Coronavirus

“I wouldn’t do it yet.”

Craig F. Walker / Boston Globe

Massachusetts will lift its mask mandate next week to bring its face-covering rules in line with the updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for individuals who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

But some local public health experts are urging states like Massachusetts to hold off a little longer on lifting rules that require individuals to wear masks in public spaces, both indoors and outdoors (when they can’t socially distance), regardless of their vaccination status. 

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, wrote on Twitter that he thinks states should wait to lift indoor mask mandates until June 15 to give more time for people to get fully vaccinated. Massachusetts will lift its mandate on May 29 but is continuing to ask unvaccinated individuals to follow the old rules.

Not waiting means “lots” of unvaccinated individuals will likely be going maskless, and Jha told CNN it’s a “pretty dangerous moment” in the pandemic to be unvaccinated. He urged anyone who is still unvaccinated to go out and get a shot. 

“If you think about it, infection numbers are coming down and that’s great,” he said. “But they’re happening in a smaller and smaller pool of people — the unvaccinated. And the variants are really quite contagious, so if you are unvaccinated right now you have a pretty high risk of getting infected and getting sick. And as more of these mandates lift, the things that we’re doing to protect unvaccinated people also diminish.”

Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency room physician and director of the Brown Lifespan Center for Digital Health, told CNN she thinks the country will see 20 to 25 percent of the American population remaining unvaccinated, which will put them at risk for contracting COVID-19. She said she hasn’t given up hope that more people will get vaccinated when presented with an easy option for doing so. 

Last week, the CDC updated its mask guidance to advise that fully vaccinated individuals don’t have to wear masks outdoors in crowds or in most indoor settings. The agency is still recommending masks be worn in crowded indoor environments like buses, hospitals, and homeless shelters. 

Both Ranney and Jha said they believe the federal agency “got the science right,” but expressed concern about how states are implementing the guidance. 

“That connection between the biology and the behavior is where we’ve been struggling,” Ranney said. “And we’ve seen the variety of policy changes that businesses and states have put in place. Some states are saying, ‘OK, you’re protected if you’re vaccinated, but I’m still going to protect the rest of the community for now and keep those mask mandates in place.’ Many states of course have gone in the opposite direction and have gotten rid of mask mandates, potentially putting people who haven’t had the chance to be fully vaccinated yet at risk.”

Ideally, Jha said, the CDC’s guidance could be implemented as it was presented, with vaccinated individuals halting mask use and unvaccinated people keeping them. 

But that is “really really hard to do,” he said. 

“What we’re going to see is unvaccinated people unmasked in indoor spaces, and that’s pretty risky,” Jha said. “And what I’m saying is as long as infection numbers are high in the community, as long as there are still a lot of people getting vaccinated but are not fully vaccinated yet, I think people should continue wearing masks indoors for another few weeks … I wouldn’t do it yet.”

Both public health experts said they plan to keep wearing face coverings in crowded indoor public spaces for the time being, especially given that they have members of their households who have not been fully vaccinated.