Balancing risk and safety as states ease mask mandates

The average number of daily new COVID cases in the U.S. from omicron has finally dropped below the peak of the delta wave. But the nation is still averaging more than 145,000 new cases and 2,400 deaths per day, leaving many people with questions about balancing risk and safety. Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas, joins John Yang to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The average number of daily new COVID cases in the U.S. from Omicron has finally dropped below the peak of the Delta wave. But the country is still averaging more than 145,000 new cases and 2,400 deaths per day.

    This has left people with many questions about balancing risk and safety.

    John Yang is here to get some answers.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, this afternoon, Virginia's governor signed into law a measure requiring public schools to make masks optional starting next month.

    It's the latest state to ease indoor mask policies. And with the CDC reevaluating its guidance, some are asking whether COVID precautions are being rolled back too soon.

    To address that and more, we are joined again by Katelyn Jetelina. She is an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center's School of Public Health in Dallas. And she writes the Your Local Epidemiologist newsletter.

    Katelyn, thank you so much for being with us again.

    This goes right to our first question. This issue of mask policies goes right to our first question from a viewer.

    Nancy Eichelberger from Plainfield, Illinois asks, quite simply: "Why is unmasking safe now when transmission is still high?"

    Katelyn Jetelina, University of Texas Health Science Center: Oh, this is such a good question.

    And the truth is, this landscape is changing throughout this pandemic. More and more people are getting vaccinated. And vaccines are the best tool we have right now. But they aren't perfect. And so I would actually agree with Nancy that I think that transmission in the community is really high right now.

    In some places, it's higher than the Delta wave still, and we really need to slow down and wait until transmission is controllable in a community before we take off our masks.

  • John Yang:

    Is the best advice or guidance local advice? I mean, today, for instance, at the White House briefing, Dr. Walensky, Rochelle Walensky of the CDC, talked about conditions at local hospitals being something that they need to consider when making local recommendations.

  • Katelyn Jetelina:

    Yes, I mean, that's certainly the direction that we have gone in, in the United States, is this local response.

    I certainly think, though, the local jurisdictions need guidance. We need to know what those metrics are, so we can guide populations on when it is safe to take off masks. That guidance has not been defined. I hear rumbles that it may be defined next week, but people need to know now. And we really need to standardize this across the nation, so the message is clear and people know what to do.

  • John Yang:

    We have got a multipart question from Nils Haaland of Omaha, Nebraska: "Could we see another variant that's more contagious and has a higher morbidity rate than what's currently out there, or is Omicron essentially the watermark variant of the pandemic? If so, are we done with the waves of infections?"

  • Katelyn Jetelina:

    Yes, these are amazing questions.

    In general, we don't know what the next virus is going to — the next mutation is going to look like, contrary to popular belief that this virus doesn't necessarily mutate to become less dangerous. The mutations are random. The only thing the virus cares about right now is surviving.

    So, we only know that the next big mutation, if we get another wave, will mean that that variant is more transmissible. It could be more severe, it couldn't be more severe. We don't know. It's a crapshoot.

    And so that's why it's really important that we prepare and we are ready, we prepare for the worst and really hope for the best.

  • John Yang:

    Kelly Reiff or Reiff — I apologize, Kelly — from Glen Rose, Texas, has this question: "what do we know about helping people with long COVID, specifically the smell and taste disorders that are so difficult to deal with, lasting many months?"

  • Katelyn Jetelina:

    Yes, the first answer is, we know long COVID is real.

    There's an estimate, between 10 and 30 percent of adults that get infected will have long COVID. And so what that means is, we're having clinics open across the nation and across the world to try and understand how to treat it.

    There is really new evidence coming out in the past week showing that — predictors of who may be more susceptible to long COVID and who may not be. The more clues we can get from the science, the better, because then we can treat those patients, maybe with antibody infusions, maybe with some antivirals or other medications.

  • John Yang:

    Do we know whether severity of the initial infection is an indicator of whether or not someone's going to have long COVID?

  • Katelyn Jetelina:

    So, not necessarily.

    You know, some people that have even asymptomatic disease will end up getting long COVID a month or two later. And so we really think that genetics plays a role in here, and even maybe some hormones. But, again, we're still trying to identify who gets long COVID and why, so we can better treat them.

  • John Yang:

    Molly Smith of Boston has a question that I think is on the mind of many parents of young children: "When will a vaccine be available for children under age 5?"

  • Katelyn Jetelina:

    Yes, I am a mom of two under 5 as well, and I have been waiting desperately for this vaccine.

    Unfortunately, it looks like we will be getting data in, in about April, so maybe May, maybe early summer, we could see this vaccine.

    What's really important with this clinical trial is that, one, the vaccine is safe for our kids, but, two, the dosage is much lower than for 5-to-11-year-olds, and we really need to make sure that dosage is effective, because, if it's not, then we need to figure out another plan.

    And no one has seen that data yet, except a few select at Pfizer and FDA. And so we're all really looking forward to seeing that data, so we can assure that these vaccines are effective for our little ones.

  • John Yang:

    Epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina, so informative, as always.

    Thank you very much.

  • Katelyn Jetelina:

    Yes, thanks for having me.

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