States like Texas and Mississippi are lifting COVID-19 mask mandates, but with the pace of vaccinations and spread of variants, experts say it’s too soon

COVID Vaccine Line
People waiting in a Disneyland parking lot in Anaheim, California, to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

  • On Tuesday, Texas became the largest US state to lift its COVID-19 mask mandate.
  • But experts say the US is in a race against the clock to vaccinate before the variants spread.
  • While some restrictions can be eased as cases decrease, experts say masks should be the last to go.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

On Tuesday, Texas became the largest US state to lift its COVID-19 mask mandate, as a number of states have begun loosening restrictions.

Mississippi, Louisiana, and Michigan also announced easing some restrictions this week, while Iowa, Montana, and North Dakota ditched state-wide mask mandates earlier this year.

The drop in coronavirus cases has been cited in decisions to lift restrictions, and, indeed, most states are down from their fall and winter peaks. However, the nationwide decline in case counts seems to be stalling at numbers that public health officials have said are still too high, prompting warnings that it’s too soon to drop restrictions.

Infectious-disease experts told Insider that while the dropping case counts were promising, it’s too soon to make dramatic changes in restrictions, especially when it comes to masks.

“It’s completely too soon,” Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of California at San Francisco, told Insider.

“It goes against the grain of what President Biden is trying to do, which is a national strategy that we never had,” he said. “COVID doesn’t restrict itself by state borders.”

Chin-Hong said individual states’ lifting mask mandates echoed the situation in the US last year, when he said the lack of a national strategy hindered efforts to restrict coronavirus transmission.

Even as President Joe Biden’s administration has ramped up vaccinations, Chin-Hong said coronavirus variants were a big concern.

“The vaccine rollout is progressing everywhere, but it probably won’t be able to protect the population fast enough,” he said.

The experts Insider spoke with all said there were encouraging signs, but that the US was still in a race to vaccinate before virus variants spread more widely.

The uncertainty of the variants

Chin-Hong said some states lifting restrictions are dealing with virus variants, including the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant. Several cases of that variant have been discovered in Iowa as well as a growing number in Texas.

But he called those cases only “the tip of the iceberg,” given the limited work being done to identify the variants.

The B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the UK, is known to be more transmissible than the original strain. British scientists have also become increasingly convinced the variant could be deadlier as well.

The variant has been detected in 46 states, and Chin-Hong said it would most likely be the country’s dominant strain by the end of March. If states continue to lift restrictions like mask mandates, it will increase the likelihood for B.1.1.7 to spread.

In states that have dramatically lifted restrictions, which now includes Texas, Chin-Hong said the virus was “probably having a party right now.”

B.1.1.7 is just one of many coronavirus variants circulating in the US and it’s possible more will emerge, making it an evolving issue with lots of uncertainty.

“We’re entering a phase where it’s harder to know what the near-term future is like,” Andrew Noymer, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of California at Irvine, told Insider.

He said his expectations for what would happen throughout the pandemic – such as the summer and winter surges – had largely been accurate. But, he said, for the first time he felt as if he really didn’t know what the immediate future would look like regarding the pandemic.

Racing to vaccinate

Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida, agreed it’s too soon to be lifting mask mandates.

“The thing is, we still have COVID circulating and don’t have the majority of people vaccinated,” she said, adding that while case numbers were lower than they were during the holiday surge, they’re still not at ideal levels in most places.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 80 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the US as of March 3. About 16% of Americans have received their first dose, while about 8% are fully vaccinated.

To reach herd immunity, an estimated 65% to 80% of a population needs to be immune.

The Biden administration is well on its way to achieving its goal of administering 100 million vaccine shots in its first 100 days, and it has plans to further ramp up vaccinations. The president said Tuesday the US will have enough vaccine doses for every US adult by the end of May.

But depending on distribution, it will take months for the doses to be administered.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who is also Biden’s chief COVID-19 medical advisor, has said priority groups won’t finish getting vaccinated until sometime in April. And it could take until late summer for all eligible adults to receive their shot.

If the more-transmissible B.1.1.7 variant becomes the most common strain, that leaves a lot of time for it to circulate in environments with loosened restrictions.

“It is really a race against time,” Prins said.

Before dramatically lifting restrictions, she said, states should have a combination of low transmission as well as a high number of fully vaccinated people to reach a “balance where we feel like we’re not going to have widespread transmission.”

“We’ll get to that point,” she said. “But we’re not there yet.”

‘Masks should be among the last to go’

Despite concerns over variants, Noymer of UC Irvine said it’s reasonable for states to reevaluate restrictions as case numbers drop.

“People are getting antsy,” Noymer told Insider. “What you don’t want to have is a situation in which people don’t want to follow any restrictions because they feel it’s all too strict.”

Noymer said loosening restrictions could even have an overall positive effect in some situations. For instance, he mentioned California, where an outdoor-dining ban in the fall sparked outrage and even prompted some restaurants and local jurisdictions to flout the rules.

Noymer considers this a significant problem because it risks some restrictions being viewed as meaningless.

Gov. Gavin Newsom reopened outdoor dining in California late last month, prompting some to wonder whether the decision came too soon. But Noymer said it just brought the restrictions closer in line with reality in some places, which can go a long way in maintaining the public’s trust.

“I’d like to have these orders still have some meaning when in the fall we might face a new wave with variants,” Noymer said.

But as far as what kinds of restrictions can safely be lifted, he said “masks should be among the last to go.”

He said relative to other aspects of life that had been disrupted by the pandemic, masks were a minor inconvenience relative to their public-health benefits.

“We know that masking is really important for prevention,” Prins said, adding that to keep case numbers from rising again it’s crucial for people to continue wearing masks and physical distancing until more Americans can be vaccinated.

Masks could be one of the last parts of the pandemic to go away, as Fauci recently said it’s possible Americans will be wearing masks into 2022, even after life begins to look a bit more “normal.”

Have a news tip? Contact this reporter at kvlamis@insider.com.

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Top health officials warn decline in COVID-19 cases is ‘stalling’ and that now is not the time to lift restrictions

Rochelle Walensky
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • COVID-19 daily case numbers had seen sharp declines in recent weeks.
  • Top US health officials said those declines seem to be “stalling” at a “very high number.”
  • They warn it’s too early to lift restrictions, as some governors have begun to do in their states.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

COVID-19 case counts have been falling at a rapid rate for weeks, but top health officials warn that progress seems to be “stalling” just as some states have begun to lift restrictions.

During a White House briefing on Friday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said there had been a rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases in recent days.

“Over the last few weeks, cases and hospital admissions in the United States had been coming down since early January and deaths had been declining in the past week,” Walensky said. “But the latest data suggests that these declines may be stalling, potentially leveling off at, still, a very high number.”

She said the most recent 7-day average of deaths due to COVID-19 is about 2,000 per day, which indicates a slight increase.

Although the US had been experiencing dramatic declines in cases and hospitalizations, she said those declines followed “the highest peak we have experienced in the pandemic.”

Walensky said the reason for the shift could be increasingly prominent variants of the novel coronavirus, including some that are more transmissible. Experts say one variant that was first found in the UK, B.1.1.7, is expected to account for most COVID-19 cases in the US by March.

“Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions,” she said.

“We may be done with the virus, but clearly, the virus is not done with us. We cannot get comfortable or give in to a false sense of security that the worst of the pandemic is behind us – not now; not when mass vaccination is so very close.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Biden’s chief medical adviser for COVID-19, also emphasized the importance of vaccinations during the briefing.

“It is important to get as many people vaccinated as quickly and as expeditiously as possible,” Fauci said.

He said if the case counts plateau now around 70,000 per day, as the data seems to suggest, the US would be in a “very precarious position that we were right before the fall surge.”

Fauci said states should watch what happens over the next week or so before making decisions about lifting restrictions.

As governors of certain states have begun to ease restrictions, experts told Insider it’s too soon for mask mandates to be lifted

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Kevin Faulconer is running for California governor against Gavin Newsom. Democrats should pay attention.

Kevin Faulconer
Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

  • Kevin Faulconer has launched a campaign for governor against Gavin Newsom in California.
  • Faulconer, a moderate Republican, was the mayor of San Diego from 2014 to 2020.
  • Democrats dominate California politics, but Faulconer could attract crossover votes.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

For most of the past 15 years, California Republicans have been in a severe political drought.

Once a state that produced US presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Republicans won their last statewide races in 2006 with the reelection of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor and the election of Steve Poizner as insurance commissioner.

Since then, Democrats retook the Governor’s Mansion, captured every statewide office from lieutenant governor to state controller, and launched the career of Vice President Kamala Harris, a former state attorney general and US senator.

President Joe Biden easily won the state’s 55 electoral votes in November, capturing 63.5% of the vote against former President Donald Trump’s 34% share.

California is now a decidedly Democratic state. However, the party should not get complacent.

A moderate Republican comeback

On February 1, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced that he was launching a gubernatorial campaign against incumbent Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom for 2022 or a potential recall election that would be held later this year.

Faulconer, a moderate Republican who served as mayor from March 2014 until December 2020, is the strongest candidate that the party has fielded for statewide office in years.

Read more: Biden already has an antagonist-in-chief. It’s Ron DeSantis, the Florida GOP governor Democrats have tagged as ‘Trump’s errand boy.’

While in office, Faulconer was one of the few big-city Republican mayors in the entire country. Since the San Diego mayoral office is technically nonpartisan, he had a leading role in tackling traditionally progressive issues such as affordable housing and increasing services for the homeless.

Faulconer is also pro-choice, supports the DREAM Act, and backed climate change initiatives as mayor.

“California has so much promise,” he said in announcing his run. “But Gavin Newsom’s broken promises have become our problems. His leadership is failing our state. It’s time for the California Comeback.”

Newsom, who faces a recall effort with its supporters having already gathered 1.3 million of the 1.5 million signatures necessary to put the measure on the ballot ahead of a March 17 deadline, has been criticized for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gavin Newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a news conference at Cal Expo in Sacramento, California.

While California was cited for its quick response and strict measures against the coronavirus in the early months of the pandemic, there has been a brutal COVID-19 wave across the state since late last year.

An unrelenting pandemic

California is the worst-hit state in the US. Roughly 3.3 million people have been infected with the coronavirus and over 41,000 people have died from the disease, according to the latest data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

While Newsom certainly cannot be blamed for the virus entering the state, the long-term effects of the pandemic have worn thin with many Californians.

In November, Newsom was roundly pilloried in the press for dining as part of a group at the high-end French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, a Napa County town, despite pleading with residents to restrict their social gatherings. He quickly apologized for the incident.

“I made a bad mistake,” Newsom said at the time. “Instead of sitting down, I should have stood up and walked back, got in my car and drove back to my house.”

Californians, who in 2018 voted for Newsom in a 62%-38% landslide over Republican businessman John Cox, have since cooled to the governor.

In the latest University of California Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll released on February 2, Newsom’s job approval rating sat at 46%, a steep decline from his 64% approval rating from last September.

Mining for Republican votes

Despite Biden’s massive statewide victory, Republicans made critical gains at the federal level, winning back four House seats that Democrats flipped in the 2018 midterm elections.

GOP Reps. Young Kim, Michelle Steel, Mike Garcia, and David Valadao were able to win districts in Orange County, northern Los Angeles County, and the Central Valley, all of which have a growing contingent of minority voters that were clearly receptive to GOP messaging.

Young Kim
In 2020, Rep. Young Kim (R-California) won the Orange County-anchored 39th Congressional district.

Faulconer, who was elected as mayor in a 2014 special election and reelected in 2016, would likely appeal to the independents and moderate Republicans who now vote for Democrats almost exclusively at the presidential level.

San Diego County is a clear target for Faulconer. The county, a longtime conservative stronghold buttressed by the robust military presence in the area, still contains plenty of Republican-friendly turf. It’s also his home base.

Between 1948 and 2004, Republican presidential nominees consistently won San Diego County – except in 1992, when Bill Clinton won with a narrow plurality. 

That all changed with former President Barack Obama’s 10% win in 2008. Similar to most large metropolitan areas across the US, the county began to vote Democratic.

The political reality of the Golden State 

In 2012, Obama beat GOP challenger Mitt Romney in the county by a 53% to 45% margin, and in 2016, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defeated Trump 56% to 37%. 

Read more: Biden already has an antagonist-in-chief. It’s Ron DeSantis, the Florida GOP governor Democrats have tagged as ‘Trump’s errand boy.’

Last year, Biden beat Trump in the county 60% to 37.5%. Despite Trump’s loss, he still received over 600,000 votes countywide, which was an increase of nearly 123,000 votes from his total in 2016, reflecting that there are still plenty of GOP votes to be found.

Neighboring Orange County, which narrowly supported Newsom in 2018 and for generations was one of the most recognizable GOP locales in the entire country, is a place where Faulconer has the potential to make gains.

Republicans are still dominant at the local level in Orange County, and as a center of the anti-mask movement, Newsom will have to work hard to win over many of these voters in his next election.

Despite his current troubles, Newsom has been a longtime fixture in California politics, first as mayor of San Francisco and then as a two-term lieutenant governor. Nearly half (49%) of all voters in the Berkeley IGS poll think a potential recall election would be bad for the state.

However, the pandemic has the potential to scramble traditional political sentiments, and Faulconer is running as a bridge-builder, emphasizing a focus on income inequality and raising the morale of the state. 

If conservative activists are willing to accept some of Faulconer’s more moderate positions, then his campaign could be a huge step forward in the California GOP’s bid to regain relevancy in the state.

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Israel is freezing flights in and out of the country to slow the spread of COVID-19 strains

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a protective face mask, attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, June 14, 2020. Sebastian Scheiner/Pool via REUTERS
FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting

  • Israel will ban inbound and outbound flights by foreign airlines to slow the spread of COVID-19 strains.
  • Haaretz reported the freeze will take effect early Tuesday morning and last until January 31. 
  • Emergency medical flights, firefighting planes, and legal travel will be permitted, according to the report.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Israel will ban foreign airlines from flying in and out of the country until January 31 to curtail the spread of new COVID-19 strains.

The country’s cabinet on Sunday approved plans to freeze flights starting at midnight between Monday and Tuesday, Haaretz reported Sunday. Flights leaving the country will only be approved in rare instances. Firefighting planes, emergency medical flights, and cargo aircraft won’t be affected by the policy. Domestic airlines will also face some new restrictions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the new travel policy, saying in a government meeting “no nation has done what we are about to do,” according to Haaretz.

“We are hermetically sealing the country,” he added.

Read more: More than 200 coronavirus vaccines are still in development as the initial vaccine rollout ramps up. Here’s how experts anticipate 2021 playing out.

While several countries have reinstated travel restrictions to slow the virus’s spread, Israel’s latest motion is among the strictest actions yet. Many countries are now requiring passengers to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before flying internationally.

Flights leaving Israel for legal or medical reasons will be permitted, as will those for family funerals or relocations. Travel for personal or humanitarian needs will require approval by the government’s directors-general of health and transportation, Haaretz reported.

The flight halt also marks the first time that Jewish people won’t be able to immigrate to Israel unless it’s “a matter of life or death,” transportation minister Miri Regev reportedly said in the meeting.

The harsher travel restrictions come as new variants of COVID-19 rapidly spread around the world. A new, more contagious strain that originated in the United Kingdom has already affected several in Israel and could fuel a new wave of cases. The country’s Health Ministry said Saturday that six out of seven hospitalized pregnant women were found to have been infected with the UK strain.

Separately, one of Israel’s biggest health insurers recently warned of the variant’s spread. Leumit Health Maintenance Office CEO Haim Fernandes said last week that up to half of its tested members had caught the UK strain, Haaretz reported.

Israel reported 4,933 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Since the pandemic’s onset last year, the country has seen more than 4,300 virus-related deaths.

Read more: From abortion care to LGBTQ rights, here’s how Joe Biden is prepared to tear up Donald Trump’s restrictive gender policies

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