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Texas and Mississippi lifting their Covid mask mandates is like pouring gas on a fire

These decisions are putting people at risk of losing everything, including their lives.
Image: Mariachi perform for diners at a restaurant on the River Walk in San Antonio
Mariachi perform for diners at a restaurant on the River Walk in San Antonio on March 3, 2021. Gov. Greg Abbott says Texas is lifting a mask mandate and lifting business capacity limits next week.Eric Gay / AP

Faced with a fire burning down your house, you don’t reach for a can of gasoline. But that’s exactly what the governors of Texas and Mississippi are doing this week, by giving up on mask mandates when the pandemic fire is still raging. And their decisions are putting people at risk of losing everything, including their lives.

Masks are one of the most effective non-pharmaceutical protections against the pandemic.

On March 2, Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Tate Reeves of Mississippi announced the end of their respective statewide mask-wearing mandates. As Abbot noted, Texas is open “100 percent.” These announcements came the same day that Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said “now is not the time” to loosen protections because the number of new cases and deaths are again increasing across the United States.

We know, absolutely and unequivocally, that masks stop the spread of Covid-19. Masks are one of the most effective nonpharmaceutical protections against the pandemic. Studies of individuals show that when both the infected and uninfected person wear masks — even cloth masks — the rate of transmission of the virus decreases by approximately 70 percent. The protective effect increases even further when better-fitting or higher-quality masks are worn. The amount of protection we get from good masks is, in fact, only slightly lower than that of vaccination (although vaccination obviously has other benefits).

Although ideally people decide to wear masks on their own, we also know that policies requiring masks are tremendously important. States and counties with mask mandates see drastic increases in community rates of mask-wearing, help business owners to set standards to protect themselves and their employees, and provide workers with justification for wearing a mask in the workplace. The CDC noted that counties in Kansas without a mask mandate saw infections increase by 100 percent — while adjacent counties with a mask mandate saw infections decrease by 6 percent. The only difference in these counties was the presence of a policy.

Which is why lifting these mandates, today, is such a horrible idea.

The only strategy better than mask wearing is vaccination. But in both Texas and Mississippi — the first states to lift mask mandates — vaccination rates are low, and barriers to vaccinations are high. Texas currently has among the lowest rates of vaccine administration. And it scores worst on the vaccination barriers index developed by the Surgo Foundation. Mississippi is similarly failing.

In other words, the governors’ decisions make us feel like we’re in a funhouse: Up is down, and down is up. Instead of investing in protecting their citizens while fixing vaccinations, they’re doing the exact opposite, and making it all worse.

Meanwhile, new variants of SARS-CoV2 are slowing progressing across the world, and Covid-19 cases appear to be increasing in Texas (likely reflecting last month’s harsh weather, and the ensuing public health crisis of lost power, frozen pipes and lack of safe shelter). Every new case drives another one, or two, or four — especially without masks on. The fire will rage on.

In Texas and Mississippi, there are public health and elected officials who respect the data and the facts. The Texas Hospital Association is asking Texans to keep masking because “we know it works.” The mayors of Houston and Dallas continue to advocate for mask-wearing and social distancing. Even the coach of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs, Gregg Popovich, called the governor’s order “ignorant.” The mayor of Jackson, Mississippi’s largest city, is keeping its mask mandate, arguing the governor can’t supersede the authority of mayors.

That same mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, also told a state newspaper, “We have yet to scratch the surface on vaccinations statewide or in Jackson.”

Despite all we have lost in this pandemic, there is important knowledge we have gained. Despite all who have died, we have learned how to keep others alive. And we have learned that masks work. They are a real-life illustration of our commitment to protecting one another, to slowing the spread of this deadly pandemic, to protect our family, friends, co-workers, our community. Our focus must be on making it easier for people to get the best masks, not encouraging them to toss them altogether.

The pandemic fire is still burning. The actions of the governors of Texas and Mississippi will likely make it worse, and longer, for all of us. But it can end.

So here is our message to the people of Texas and Mississippi: keep social distancing, keep away from big crowds, get vaccinated as soon as you can — and keep wearing your masks. For those who need good-quality masks, we suggest perusing ProjectN95 and the Federal Drug Administration's guide to approved, high-quality medical-grade masks. Your government may not be protecting you, but you can still protect yourself.