PHILADELPHIA — In the City of Brotherly Love this week, residents are experiencing a blast from the recent past: masks are back in Philadelphia’s indoor spaces.
Cases there jumped by 50%, prompting the city to reinstitute its indoor mask mandate - the first major city to do so.
"If we wait to find out to put our masks back on, we'll have lost our chance to stop this wave,” said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole.
According to The New York Times COVID tracker, cases are up 8% across the country in the past two weeks, but are trending higher in the Northeast: Vermont - up 46%, New York – up 63%, New Jersey – up 76% and Rhode Island – up 107%.
Meanwhile, the federal mask mandate on public transportation – like planes or trains – was set to expire next week, but has now been extended two weeks because of the uptick.
“There's a high population density and it's still fairly cold. So, people aren't outside as often as they could be in other parts of the country,” said Dr. Jessica Holzer, an assistant professor at the University of New Haven, who specializes in public health. “So, all of those things could be contributing to it.”
Dr. Holzer said that much like in the early days of the pandemic, the Northeast could be a canary in a coalmine of what awaits the rest of the country when it comes to COVID-19 cases.
“People from the Northeast will travel for spring break or something else: visiting family for Easter weekend,” she said. “All those sorts of things might absolutely affect case rates across the rest of the country.”
She said there is one thing that could prevent that: wearing a high-quality mask.
“Wearing a mask really does effectively cut down the spread,” Dr. Holzer said.
However, a new Axios-Ipsos survey finds that Americans are over it. The survey’s results show most believe the pandemic is no longer a crisis, with 75% calling it a ‘manageable problem.’ At the same time, 16% of those surveyed said it’s ‘no longer a problem’ at all.
“There's a baseline fatigue that we are dealing with for sure, but it's also worth recognizing that the more we focus on that fatigue, the more that fatigue presents itself to us,” Dr. Holzer said.
She added that fatigue will also make it harder for public health officials to manage any future COVID surges.
“But I believe that high-quality public health decision-making will say that, at a certain point, once case rates get high enough, once test positivity gets high enough, it's time to reinstate that mask policy for population well-being,” Dr. Holzer said.
It is a potential move that could put Americans’ COVID exhaustion to the test.