By Julia Kindelin and Patrycja Guzy
COVID-19 cases are on the decline in the U.S. after the December 2021 and January 2022 Omicron surge, and states across the country are quickly removing or reducing their covid restrictions. Only Washington, Hawaii, and Oregon have widespread mask requirements, which will end mid-March 2022, with Hawaii keeping theirs the longest until May 2022.
Most significantly, New York has ended its mask mandate for public schools, along with the vaccination requirement for indoor venues. Chicago Public Schools announced that it will drop its mask mandate on March 14. While there is not a mandate in most U.S. states, many recommend or require masks in healthcare settings or highly populated areas.
As the U.S. relaxes its requirements to make a return to normalcy, there are uncertainties about a potential increase in cases due to the lack of mandates. Other countries around the world have had varying degrees of success as they remove their mandates. Particularly, New Zealand has faced spikes in cases after relaxing their masking requirements.
New Zealand has faced both praise and critique for their strict COVID-19 guidelines, which included mandatory minimum 7-day quarantine at your home or in a managed isolation and quarantine facility (which ended on March 2 for vaccinated travelers). They maintained a flat “curve” of cases until the Omicron variant hit them in late 2021. The explosion of cases comes as traveling restrictions are eased under growing pressure from citizens to ease restrictions.
No longer is self-isolation required under most circumstances, and vaccinated citizens do not have to quarantine after entering the country. While this change may have appeased some citizens, New Zealand’s cases have continued to rise drastically, despite their high vaccination rates.
Sarah Ali, a radiography assistant at Lutheran General Hospital, is one of many U.S. citizens ready for mask mandates to end.
“The mask mandate overall was a bit too extreme,” she said. “Personal opinion is that it was overreacted. Exaggerated mandates, it is just beneficial to think about the public as a whole. Too far with the precautions.”
Sarah noted that her hospital has had a sharp decline in cases since the start of 2022.
“A few weeks ago cases just from the hospital were at 180 cases,” she said. “The next following weeks they dropped dramatically and now we are at 30 COVID-19 cases.”
Relaxing mandates across the U.S. may only be successful if there is not a spike from a threatening variant or subvariant in the future. Some are pointing to BA.2 as a potential threat to declining case numbers. The original Omicron variant, BA.1, is likely responsible for most of the cases from the December and January spike, but the variant has mutated into three lineages, BA.1, BA.2, and BA.3.
CDC data revealed that the BA.2 variant currently makes up 8.3% of total Covid cases, up from 4.4% the previous week, and 2% the week before that. Some experts point to a Danish study from January 2022, which suggested that BA.2 may be significantly more contagious and vaccine-resistant than the original Omicron strain. There was no indication that the subvariant is more severe than its predecessor.
The World Health Organization released a statement on the sub-variant, sharing that the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution met to discuss BA.2 and determined that the BA.2 sublineage should be viewed as a variant of concern and that it should be classified as Omicron. While BA.2 may be on track to becoming more dominant than BA.1, Covid cases globally are declining. The WHO asks countries to be vigilant about this subvariant, but does not indicate that any additional masking or social distancing requirements be implemented globally.
As the U.S. looks forward to life without any restrictions, the Biden Administration advises Americans that navigating COVID-19 post-Omicron relies on continually implementing tools when necessary which include vaccines, tests, treatments, masks, and more.
The CDC noted, “People may choose to mask at any time. People with symptoms, a positive test, or exposure to someone with COVID-19 should wear a mask.”
To learn more about recommended precautions based on the spread of COVID-19 in your community, visit the CDC COVID-19 County Checker.