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COVID-19 Pandemic: Mask Mandate May Not Be Necessary For Now, Say Experts

With India seeing the lowest number of COVID-19 cases in two years, several states, including Delhi, Maharashtra, Punjab and Haryana, have done away with the mandatory use of masks

COVID-19 Pandemic: Mask Mandate May Not Be Necessary For Now, Say Experts
COVID-19 pandemic: Some of the states in India have removed the mask mandate
  • Many countries, including China, are witnessing an uptick in Covid cases
  • People might have to start using masks again in the future: Epidemiologist
  • ‘Removing mask mandate may lull people into thinking the pandemic is over’

New Delhi: Setting at rest fears over Covid restrictions being relaxed, several experts say the two-year stringent mask mandate has led to fatigue and can be removed from public spaces for now just as many countries have done. While the message around the benefits of masking should continue, it would be wise to lift the mandate and reintroduce it if there is another Covid wave for better compliance, experts said, pointing to the futility of ill-fitting masks and lack of community consensus on the matter.

Also Read: COVID-19 Pandemic: Here’s What Experts Have To Say About Lifting The Mandate On Face Masks By Some States

“The issue is of compliance fatigue,” Ramanan Laxminarayan, Director of Washington’s Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, told PTI while noting that many countries around the world have removed mask restrictions.

“I would urge messaging around the usefulness of masking in closed spaces, but would not suggest that it needs to be enforced punitively,” added Gautam Menon, professor, Departments of Physics and Biology, Ashoka University in Haryana.

The assurance comes as India’s Covid graph dips – on Friday 1,109 new coronavirus infections were reported – and also one case of a new Covid strain in Mumbai.

On Wednesday (April 6), the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) reported India’s first case of the Omicron recombinant strain XE. However. INSACOG, which monitors genomic variations in the SARS-CoV-2 in India, has decided to take up another round of genomic sequencing at a national lab for confirmation.

Also Read: Symptoms Of New COVID Variant XE: 10 Things To Know

‘Recombinant’ means the genome of XE is a combination of the genomes of the BA.1 and the BA.2 sub-variants of Omicron.

With India seeing the lowest number of COVID-19 cases in two years, several states, including Delhi, Maharashtra, Punjab and Haryana, have done away with the mandatory use of masks.

Epidemiologist Laxminarayan said it may be necessary for the public to start using masks again in the future if there is another variant and wave.

But keeping these requirements in place indefinitely causes the public to not take them seriously. It is therefore better to remove them and then reintroduce them when necessary, Mr Laxminarayan explained.

Scientist and modeller Gautam Menon agreed.

Given that the BA.2 sub-variant of the Omicron coronavirus variant drove the surge in India during the third wave, it should be possible to relax masking restrictions in public spaces, he said.

Getting compliance with Covid boosters is probably more important than enforcing masks.” “We will have to think about how to return to normal life and this time appears to be as good as any, given what we know. Hopefully the lessons of the pandemic will stick and dealing with any future uptick in cases from a new variant will be easier, since people are now habituated to restrictions, he added.

Also Read: New Covid Variant XE Found In UK, More Transmissible Than Omicron: WHO

Immunologist Satyajit Rath said it is a “mistake” to pretend the pandemic is no longer the responsibility of the state but simply of individual people.

“Persistently using ‘law-and-order’-style policies, such as all the restrictions is a mistake, especially when used widely and long,” Mr Rath, from Delhi’s National Institute of Immunology (NII), told PTI.

He also cautioned that removing mask restrictions may lull people into thinking the pandemic is over and lead to lowering of overall guard against the disease.

It certainly will, but neither has it helped very much to ‘mandate’ masking without providing people with accessible, cheap, reusable, effective masks in the first place, and without building a community consensus about masking, he added.

As numbers fall and mandates lift, people are wondering if it is possible to avoid trade-offs between returning to pre-pandemic lifestyles and an uptick in Covid related deaths.

Also Read: India’s First Case Of Coronavirus Variant XE Reported From Mumbai

A recent modelling study in the US found that relaxing masking mandates and other restrictions resulted in some “rebound” in COVID-19-related deaths in most states.

The analysis, published in the journal JAMA Health Forum, assumed the current pace of vaccination in the US is maintained into the future, and modelled different dates of lifting mandates.

The inevitable rebound in mortality was directly attributable to the Omicron variant — when we repeated the analysis, assuming the infectivity of the previous Alpha and Delta variants, the model did not project such rising mortality after relaxing mask mandates, said study co-first author Benjamin P. Linas, a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.

In March, the World Health Organization warned that a combination of factors, including misinformation that the pandemic is over, the lifting of mask mandates, ending physical distancing – and a more transmissible Omicron BA.2 variant – are causing an increase of COVID-19 cases globally.

Many countries, including China, are still witnessing an uptick in new Covid cases.

Addressing concerns, Mr Menon said that given the current level of vaccination and population exposure in India, it is unlikely that a future wave will cause as much damage as the second wave of the Delta variant last year.

The cumulative doses administered in the country so far under the nationwide COVID-19 vaccination drive has exceeded 185.20 crore.

Also Read: COVID-19 Booster Dose For All Adults At Private Vaccination Centres From April 10

In Mr Rath’s view, while the ‘seriousness’ of the disease is waning with widespread prior immunisations or infections, it is true that the more rapidly the virus spreads, the more problems will arise for the healthcare system.

Also, the more widely the virus circulates, the more the chances of a variant with new characteristics emerging, he added.

Mr Menon added that since cases are at an all-time low at the moment and test positivity is very small, masking won’t have a significant effect.

He suggested that the time is right to consider opening up, but also to ramp up surveillance for any unusual rise in cases as well as genomic analysis for new variants.

Such surveillance could also incorporate testing for the presence of the virus in waste-water, since this has proved to be a good advance indicator of the disease trajectory.

Also Read: WHO Explains Three Scenarios How Pandemic Can Evolve This Year, Releases Updated Strategic Preparedness, Readiness And Response Plan

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ populationindigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (WaterSanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollutionwaste managementplastic banmanual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.

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