As COVID-19 numbers continue to drop across the country, multiple states and municipalities are relaxing pandemic restrictions, including mask mandates. On Feb. 17, Guilford County commissioners voted unanimously to repeal the countywide mask mandate, which had been reinstituted on Jan. 13 when transmission numbers were at an all-time high across the United States. Following the commissioners’ ruling, Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras also lifted the mask mandate for students and staff on Monday.

While Winston-Salem has had a mask mandate since last August, that mandate is set to expire on Feb. 28. In a press release, Mayor Allen Joines stated that he intends to let the mandate expire, making masks optional for residents starting March 1. On Tuesday evening, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School board members voted to lift the district’s mask mandate on Feb. 28 as well.

The moves by county and school board officials comes in the wake of a press conference held by Gov. Roy Cooper on Feb. 17 in which he recommended local governments and school districts to end their mask mandates.

“We are taking a positive step on mask requirements to help us move safely toward a more normal, day-to-day life,” Cooper said. “It’s time to focus on getting our children a good education and improving our schools, no matter how you feel about masks.”

Gov. Roy Cooper recommended an end to mask mandates on Feb. 17. (photo from Facebook)

And while it’s true that COVID-19 metrics — daily case counts, deaths, hospitalizations — have been falling since a record-breaking peak in January, some in the community still wonder if masks might be the best way, besides getting vaccinated, to keep them safe from the virus. In fact, while many counties in the state have rescinded their mandates, others such as Orange and Durham have decided to keep theirs in place. Plus, many other countries around the world continue to require masks in public spaces. So what do the health experts says?

For those wondering if they should still wear masks, TCB reached out to infectious disease specialists at Cone Health and Novant.

What are your thoughts about the wave of mask mandates being lifted across the country?

Dr. Becky DeCamillis with Novant Health: I would say that masking continues to provide an extra layer of protection from contracting the virus in addition to getting vaccinated and social distancing. The absolute answer about when to unmask may not be the same from person to person, given their individual risk for severe disease and that of their family members. For example, is everyone in your household vaccinated? If not, or if they have an immunocompromising condition in which vaccination may not be as effective, you may elect to continue wearing a mask.

Dr. Cynthia Snider with Cone Health: We still recommend masking for people who are not up to date on their vaccines, immunocompromised or at risk for severe covid illness or those who are finishing their isolation period to wear a mask indoors, especially if in gatherings among others who are not vaccinated.

What about masking in schools? Would you recommend that kids still wear masks?

BD: The answer to this question will vary from person to person and depend on factors such as: Are cases really high in your community? How old is your child? How good are they at wearing a mask? N95s aren’t approved for kids, but there are KN95s in kids’ sizing.

In an ideal scenario, kids would wear a KN95 or surgical mask but if that is too uncomfortable for them and they’re constantly taking the mask off or readjusting it, then that obviously limits the utility of it. On the other hand, if they will more consistently wear a cloth mask, then that actually may be a better choice.

CS: Since vaccine uptake among kids, especially under 12 years old, is not high, there is benefit for kids to wear masks in school for the time being as there is still high level of COVID-19 in the community. Children who are at risk for complications with COVID-illness, should continue to wear masks.

Editor’s Note: Approval of a COVID-19 vaccine for children younger than 5 years old was pushed back last week by the FDA.

As the weather warms, we are seeing a decrease in cases like we did in 2021. Do you think that we could go maskless until the fall and then a spike might occur again, prompting a return to mask mandates?

BD: When community transmission is low enough, we’ll gradually see unmasking. This will vary from place to place as cases will be higher or lower in certain areas at any given time. Public-health experts are still considering what threshold that will be in terms of case numbers. Individually, however, you may choose to keep masking for an added layer of protection depending on your risk factors for severe disease and those of your family.

CS: Based on current trends, the Spring (mid-March, April and May) are anticipated to have very low rates where we can go maskless. It is difficult to project further since we know that the subvariant BA.2 is in low level circulation in the US and may continue to increase in infected cases.

COVID-19 numbers have been falling since January. (NCDHHS screenshot)

What are the best masks to wear right now?

BD: Strictly speaking, an N95 provides the best protection followed by KN95s or KF94s. A surgical mask also provides good protection but doesn’t quite have the filtering power as the others. Cloth masks provide the least protection but are better than no mask at all.

CS: Masks that have higher filtration efficacy such as N95, KN95, or KF94 can provide the best protection. However, it is also important that it is a good fit for the individual.

Which populations are contracting COVID-19 the most right now?

CS: Based on sequencing data from the CDC, 96 percent of cases in the US at the moment are due to Omicron BA.1. It is highly infectious, where we are seeing cases in people who are unvaccinated, not up to date in their vaccines and in some who are up to date on their vaccines. In those breakthrough cases among the vaccinated, they still are protected from severe disease, and usually don’t need hospital treatment.

Anything else you’d like to add as we move forward into the rest of the year?

CS: Many people have pandemic fatigue and are ready to return back to normal, pre-pandemic life. We have many tools at hand to help us still be safe in our community as the COVID rates trend down. Masking, easy access to testing, and vaccination are the ways we continue to keep each other safe. 

For Guilford County COVID-19 data, including where to get tested and get vaccinated, go here. For Forsyth County, visit here.

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