Masked to protect against coronavirus disease (COVID-19), senior Lauren Pyjar takes advantage of the warm sunshine to study outdoors at Georgetown University in Washington on March 9, 2021.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
At least a dozen colleges and universities across the United States restored their indoor mask mandates this month after Covid cases rose on their campuses.
Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University and Georgetown University announced, among others, that they will again require face covering in classrooms or certain indoor spaces. Some schools cited the threat from the more infectious omicron BA.2 subvariant, now the dominant virus strain in the United States
Their action comes as BA.2 fuels an increase in cases at the national level and a rift over whether to re-provide masks to slow down the spread. Politicians have considered the politically divisive question of whether to require face clothing just weeks after many cities loosened their public health restrictions, giving Americans a sense of normality not seen since the pandemic hit more than two years ago.
“The national debate on mask mandates certainly reflects both the pandemic fatigue and the deep political divides we have in terms of public health policy related to Covid,” said Neil Maniar, director of Northeastern University’s Master of Public Health in Urban Health Program.
“It is impossible to separate the political aspect from public health and science-based realities of how we can respond to this pandemic,” he said.
The shift away from the rules of the pandemic era – and concerns about whether the movements were premature in the midst of rising cases – continued last week after a U.S. district judge struck down a federal mask mandate for aircraft and other public transportation. The Biden administration appealed the decision last week.
Philadelphia also lifted its mandate for the indoor mask on Friday, just days after becoming the first major U.S. city to reinstate it. Public health officials said the turnaround followed a recent drop in Covid cases and hospitalizations in the city.
The average number of new cases fell to 242 a day from Thursday, compared to a high of 377 on 14 April. Hospital admissions also dropped to 65 on Thursday, down from 82 on April 17, according to a press release from the city.
Six schools in Philadelphia responded to the city turn and loosened their stricter mask rules, which were reintroduced earlier in the week in line with the mandate. They include Thomas JeffersonDrexel, Temple, La Salle and St. Joseph’s University.
The University of Pennsylvania also lifted its mask requirement for indoor public spaces on campus, but still requires masks in classrooms, on campus transit, and in health environments.
Maniar said that decisions about masks represent a shift toward more local, individualized decision-making when responding to the pandemic.
“We are moving from this one-size-fits-all approach to much more localized, much more tailored approaches that really respond to what the level of Covid is in a particular community, organization or university,” Maniar said.
“Depending on what happens in a particular area, the reintroduction of a mask requirement may or may not be justified as long as it is done in a way that responds to the data that is clear at the local level,” he added.
the state of New York
In addition to Philadelphia, changes in Covid infections have forced academic institutions to reconsider their mask policies. Three schools in the state of New York reintroduced their mandates for indoor mask.
University of Rochester announced earlier this month that it would temporarily put its indoor mask mandate back in place for all of its campuses and properties. The university said it was responding to an increase in Covid cases that “span the capacity” of quarantine and isolation rooms on its campuses.
“The trending high number of positive student COVID cases at the university in recent days makes it in everyone’s interest to take the step of re-masking indoors right now,” the university said in a statement.
In New York City, Columbia University said earlier this month that students would be required to wear noncloth masks in classrooms for the remainder of the spring semester. Columbia cited an increase in the number of cases in NYC and the university’s test positivity rate.
Barnard College, a women’s school affiliated with Columbia, also reintroduced its mask mandate for certain indoor spaces on April 6 due to an increase in cases since it repealed the rule on March 28.
The decisions come as cases arise in the largest American city. The rolling seven-day average of daily new cases in NYC was 2,348 on April 18, up from 2,027 a week earlier, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cases in the city have since fallen to a seven-day average of 1,565, the data shows.
In the state of New York, excluding New York City, the total seven-day moving average was 4,029 on April 24, up from 3,631 on April 18 and 2,899 a week earlier, CDC data said. The state’s seven-day test positivity also rose from 3.65% to 8.97% from April 1 to April 22.
The state of New York and NYC have not reintroduced mandates for indoor masks after they repealed them several weeks ago. But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is still demanding masks on subways and buses in NYC, despite the Florida judge’s decision to abolish the federal mask mandate on transportation last week.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul said in a Twitter post that the requirement for transit mask would remain in place in accordance with guidance from the state Department of Health.
In Washington, DC, Howard University is the most recent school reintroduce mask requirements. Students will need to wear facewear for all indoor and outdoor group environments through the end of the spring semester. The university also went a step further than other schools and announced that it would hold certain undergraduate courses online during the final days of teaching and complete final exams virtually.
George Washington University also announced earlier this month that it would require masks for all campus facilities. The school noted that the mandate would extend through the remainder of the spring semester, exam period and commencement.
American University also reintroduced its indoor mesh mandate for all campus buildings, and Georgetown announced that it would require masks indoors on two of its campuses. Both universities said the mandate would not apply to people in private offices or personal residences, or to people who actively eat or drink.
All four universities in DC cited high transmission in the region and significant number of cases on their campuses, which are partly driven by BA.2.
The rolling seven-day average of daily new cases in Washington was 119 on April 18, down from 293 a week earlier, according to CDC data. However, the district’s seven-day test positivity rose from 1.8% to 5.44% from April 1 to 17. The percentage of positive cases has since fallen to 3.89% per year. April 22.
Washington ended its indoor mask mandate in late February and has not reinstated it since. DC’s Metro made stitches optional on his buses, railroads and shared transportation after the Florida judge’s ruling.
The return of mask mandates to universities is spreading to major cities like New York and Washington. Schools that reintroduced indoor face coverage requirements include the University of Connecticut, Bowdoin University, Rice University and Williams College. Johns Hopkins also said on April 6 that it would require masks in classrooms, common areas in living rooms and dining facilities, except when actively eating or drinking.
Maniar said other universities and local jurisdictions could reinstate their mask mandates in the future, adding that they should base their decisions on Covid indicators in their communities.
“It is certainly possible to bring masks back where we are seeing an increase in the number of cases, a corresponding increase in hospital admissions and a corresponding increase in the percentage of positivity,” he said.
Maniar added: “We just want to avoid a situation where we overburden the health care system in a particular community or area. So if we start to see an increase in these indicators then I can see that it triggers a reinstatement of the mask requirements in some environments and determined in university settings. ”