Mask mandates, contact tracing disappear, as states move to new phase

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“We’re not going to run Covid from scratch,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who has taken a tough approach to pandemic protocols but said Monday he would lift the school mask mandate from the state. “We have to learn to live with Covid as we move from a pandemic to the endemic phase of this virus.”

The governors of Connecticut and Delaware, as well as the Oregon Department of Health, also announced Monday that students may soon remove their masks. The governors of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York have also signaled upcoming changes to their mask rules, while California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, announced he was ending the indoor mask mandate next week but keeping masks in classrooms, for now.

These actions, from governors who have been among the most aggressive in pursuing pandemic restrictions, come as President Joe Biden and his top health officials have begun to bully a ‘new normal’ is looming on the horizon as they prepare for a world where the virus is present but not dominant in people’s lives.

The change in pandemic policy comes as case numbers and hospitalizations have declined rapidly from their peak last month, offering fresh hope that the latest surge may be the last. And while Covid-19 is still a pandemic – the country having an average of around 250,000 new infections and 2,500 deaths every day for the past week — state health officials are increasingly peppering their statements with the electronic word.

“We need to consider moving to treating it more like an endemic disease,” Marshall Vogt, senior epidemiologist with the Virginia Department of Health’s Division of Immunization, told POLITICO. “I don’t think we know for sure yet, but I think we’re close to being able to figure it out.”

Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said last week that Omicron had “accelerated our path to endemic status.” Colorado has launched a request for proposals seeking private sector assistance to develop an endemic response plan. And Newsom is expected to unveil a ‘rampant strategy’ for the state after Los Angeles hosts the Super Bowl this weekend, though business groups and others familiar with the talks aren’t yet sure what that means.

In Republican-controlled states, where governors have largely resisted mask mandates and economic restrictions, falling case numbers provide a reason to end the remaining traces of their state’s pandemic response.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds announced his final emergency declaration extension and plans to shut down the state’s Covid data sites, and Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson recently urged the federal government to provide clear guidance to states on how to transition from a pandemic to an endemic response.

Some health officials see the changes as a prelude to what a post-pandemic management of Covid could look like, with the responsibility of preventing the daily spread of the virus on individuals, while health services play a role of support in vaccination, public education and stopping outbreaks in high-risk settings.

Public health experts urge caution, however, noting that warm weather and falling case numbers have already lulled Americans into a false sense of security. Last summer, Biden declared the nation’s “independence” from Covid – only for the virus to come back with a vengeance through Delta and Omicron variants.

“I think we’re definitely at a point where we’re living with Covid,” said Meredith Allen, vice president for health security at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “But I think it’s really hard to predict what might or might not happen in the future.”

In previous waves, overwhelmed health departments struggled to trace contacts due to testing slowdowns and large case volumes, but they still believed in the usefulness of the practice. Now many public health experts are saying that not only is contact tracing not possible, but also no longer useful in most cases for Covid.

Because Omicron has a shorter incubation period than previous variants, by the time someone finds out they’ve tested positive, those they’ve infected are likely a few days into their illness and have already transmitted the virus to others, creating a situation where the virus is one step ahead of public health officials.

“The bottom line here is that contact tracing is a race. It’s a race between public health and the virus. Who will reach people first, us or the virus? Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah told reporters last week. “Until Omicron this race was pretty neck and neck, but Omicron is a different competitor. The virus that we all first experienced in 2020 has changed. It now has a jetpack on its back.

The increase in home testing also means many cases go unreported to health services, leaving it up to those people to notify their contacts when they test positive.

Public health officials say government-run contact tracing will continue to play a role in mitigating the spread of Covid-19, just in a more targeted capacity. Most health departments that have abandoned widespread contact tracing for the public still plan to conduct disease investigations and research in high-risk settings, including hospitals, nursing homes and prisons, where clusters of cases are likely and where the practice can more effectively stop transmission.

“We need to use the best tools we have to respond to the current pandemic situation,” said Summer Tonizzo, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

For the public, many health services are promoting booster shots, educating people about the importance of wearing better quality masks, and directing Covid-positive patients to local helplines. National health organizations, including the Association of State and Territory Health Officials and the National Association of County and City Health Officials, support the trend to empower individuals more.

“It’s time to empower the public when they suspect COVID-19 infection,” they wrote in a recent letter supporting the abandonment of contact tracing among many national health services and locals, and urging others to follow suit.

For health services, it’s a balance between making sure they’re still responding to the current crisis while preparing for a future where Covid response becomes everyday and where they have more energy to devote to other public health threats, including the pandemic-era increase in sexually transmitted infections, overdose deaths and mental health problems.

It’s a conversation that’s been going on for at least a year now, said Adriane Casalotti, head of public and government affairs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

“We’re thinking about what the next steps might be and we really hope there’s an end to this in sight, or at least an endemic piece to this in sight,” Casalotti said. “But we have to make sure we don’t look so far into the future that we can’t do the necessary work between here and there.”

Susannah Luthi and Victoria Colliver contributed to this report.

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