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Local Health Experts Encourage Masking Indoors

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A teacher wears a mask inside a classroom. Both Gahunia and Ernst say new breakthrough COVID-19 cases among vaccinated people should not discourage people from getting the vaccinated. Credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr Creative Commons

While state officials have not implemented any new masking mandates in response to changing CDC guidelines, local health experts say Marylanders should err on the side of caution.

The CDC is recommending that people vaccinated for COVID-19 resume wearing masks in high-transmission areas, revising guidance issued in May that said fully vaccinated people can go unmasked in indoor and outdoor settings.

Dr. Mona Gahunia, an infectious disease physician at Kaiser Permanente, said when the CDC issued that guidance, there was a lot more to be optimistic about. More people were getting vaccinated, positivity rates were down and the Delta variant didn’t seem as big a threat.

Gahunia said the CDC is going in the right direction. She understands why some may think it’s flip-flopping, but that ultimately they’re doing their best.

“Public health professionals in this space, we've all been learning on the go,” she said. “And because new information and data is released every day, we're trying to do our best to keep up.”

She added, however, that the CDC could do with clearer and simpler guidance. The new recommendations specify masking in areas of high-transmission. Gahunia said whether an area is high transmission can change very rapidly.

“It's not easy for people to keep track of all of that,” she said. “Especially if you're moving around, you're traveling in the summer.”

Gahunia said in the end, people may just want to stick with wearing a mask indoors.

“The safest strategy for most people, and especially anyone over 65, or who's immunocompromised, or who has people in their household not vaccinated, is just to wear a mask in indoor public settings,” she said.

She said she wouldn’t be surprised if Maryland reissued masking mandates.

But at a Board of Public Works meeting today, Gov. Larry Hogan made no mention of a mask mandate. His spokesperson also confirmed with WYPR that Hogan is not considering one.

Gahunia said the deciding factor for state health officials should not necessarily be a specific COVID positivity rate, but rather the rate of growth.

“If we continue to see the rates rise like we're seeing, and if it continues to rise sort of in an exponential way, then we should really reconsider whether we have masks,” she said.

Following weeks of decline in its COVID positivity rates, Maryland’s surpassed 2% for the first time since May last weekend. As of Wednesday, the positivity rate was at 2.45%.

Neysa Ernst, the nurse manager of the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit, said Maryland may be relatively better off compared to other states, given that it is currently a moderate transmission area, according to the CDC.

But she said Marylanders should still be “very wary” of the Delta variant.

“We know that we can't live through 2020 again,” Ernst said. “And if it's as simple as saying, you know, I'm going to wear a mask to the grocery store, right? Maybe the governor doesn't mandate it, but [say] I have a family member at home that’s sick and I want to protect them...out of respect for them, I'm going to put a mask on.”

Ernst said she practices that sort of caution outside of work. She wears a mask at the grocery store and at church, where she tries to stay six feet apart from other people.

“It makes a lot of sense to put on a mask on an airplane, in a crowded bus terminal, in a crowded train station or places where you can't socially distance,” she said.

As a physician, Gahunia also is cautious. She has kids under the age of 12 who are unvaccinated. She wears masks in public indoor settings. When she goes to restaurants, she only sits outdoors.

“I have relaxed more with my family who is fully vaccinated, my parents and in-laws,” Gahunia said.

Gahunia is also urging people to pay attention to another less talked about part of the new CDC guidelines: testing.

The CDC now says if you’re fully vaccinated and have been exposed to someone with COVID, you should get tested three to five days after exposure, regardless of whether you have symptoms.

Previously, testing was not necessarily recommended for vaccinated people without symptoms.