As the omicron wave of the coronavirus subsides, several U.S. states including Nevada, New York and Illinois ended mask mandates this week for indoor settings, while others lifted requirements at schools. The White House says talks are underway about how and when to move the country out of the emergency phase of the pandemic, but in the meantime people are advised to keep following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending mask use in indoor settings in places with high transmission rates.
Here's a look at what happened with mask rules this week:
Why are many places lifting mandates now?
Mainly it's the drop in hospitalizations and case counts, even in states that have enacted the most stringent rules. This week's epidemiological report from the World Health Organization showed that case counts fell 50% in the United States and 17% worldwide. Across the U.S., COVID-19 hospitalizations have dropped nearly 30% over the past three weeks.
Others have cited the protections offered by vaccines as well as the increased availability of at-home testing kits and therapeutics for those who catch the virus.
The risk has also fallen dramatically for healthcare workers, many of whom have either been exposed to the virus or are fully vaccinated and boosted, said Dr. Craig Spencer, a New York City emergency room physician. He said medical workers have been dealing with COVID long enough that treating it has become "run-of-the-mill," akin to dealing with heart attacks or other conditions typically seen in an ER.
"Honestly, for us right now, COVID isn't hard to treat. We know what to do," Spencer said. "With this latest wave, we haven't seen a huge amount of severe disease, and those we do see, we have gotten so much better at managing it."
Even so, the head of the WHO issued a warning Wednesday stressing that "COVID isn't through with us," although its focus was more on vaccinations than masks. There's also a new urgency in finding ways to protect up to 7 million Americans with severely weak immune systems who are at greater risks as mask mandates fall.
Where are mask rules easing?
Nevada on Thursday became the latest state to end indoor mask mandates, following announcements the previous day in New York and Illinois, though school mandates remain in those states.
Gov. Steve Sisolak said the requirement for masks in public places would be lifted "effective immediately," though mask rules at casinos were not immediately ended. Sisolak said he knows some people think it's too early to lift the mandate, but he said school districts and employers may still set their own policies.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said infection rates have declined to a level where it is safe to rescind the broader mask order, and the state will revisit in early March whether to continue requiring them in schools.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said that state's indoor mask requirement will end Feb. 28 assuming a continued drop in hospitalizations — which his office said are declining faster than at any point in the pandemic.
Other places have announced similar plans to ease mask rules, including Juneau, Alaska, and Orange County, California.
Not everyone is following suit. The mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, said they will soon end vaccine-or-test requirements instituted last month for restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues, but neither has talked about scrapping mask mandates.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said a mandate for large outdoor events will be lifted next but indoor requirements will remain for now: "I agree with CDC that today is not the day to totally eliminate masks, but it is a day that is rapidly approaching."