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Why Philadelphia is bringing back its mask mandate

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Did you think mask mandates were a thing of the past? Well, they're not. Beginning today, Philadelphia will be the first major U.S. city to return to requiring a mask at all restaurants, shops, schools, offices and other indoor public spaces. Some business owners and residents have filed suit to end the requirement, but the city says it needs to take steps now to respond to a sharp rise in new COVID cases and the omicron variant BA.2. Dr. Leana Wen, the former health commissioner of Baltimore, is among the critics who say Philadelphia's latest move is unnecessary and confusing. And she joins us now via Skype. Good morning.

LEANA WEN: Good morning.

FADEL: So, Doctor, when you've been critical of Philadelphia's decision, why?

WEN: Well, I certainly understand if individuals want to choose to mask. And if they do, they should be wearing an N95 or equivalent, a high-quality mask, to protect themselves. I also think it makes sense for institutions like in universities or workplaces to want to institute additional protections. It's very different, though, if we're talking about a government-imposed mandate. Those types of mandates should really be a last resort. That's always been the understanding from the beginning of the pandemic, that these measures are implemented when there is no other choice. And right now, it's not that. I mean, in the future, there may be a new variant that evades prior immunity. Hospitals might actually be at capacity. And my fear is that it's crying wolf, that if you tell people all the time it's a crisis but it's actually not a crisis, that people are not going to listen.

FADEL: So then are we, in your view, at a moment in the pandemic with vaccines where people will just have to learn to live with COVID and make their own decisions about what protective measures they want to take?

WEN: This is not 2020 or 2021. The tools that were used at that time were a lot more limited. Back in 2020, all we had were masks and distancing. Now we have vaccines and boosters that protect you very well against severe disease. We have tests. I mean, people can also choose to test, for example, before getting together, especially if there are vulnerable individuals there. And we have all kinds of treatments that need to be scaled up. There needs to be a lot more done to make them available to individuals or more readily available to individuals. But I think we need to acknowledge that COVID is here for the foreseeable future. We are going to see surges like this, and we have to figure out how we're going to live with this and not upend our lives all the time.

FADEL: Now, you wrote in The Washington Post that other cities should not follow Philadelphia's lead. So how do you draw the line between being overly protective and being proactive?

WEN: It's really difficult. And look, I don't want to second-guess Philadelphia officials' decision because they're already under attack from so many different places. But I don't think that other cities should follow. I think cities have so many more tools at their disposal, too. For example, if they see that there is an increase in cases, they could ramp up testing, they could scale up treatment and make treatment options more readily available. They can also hand out free N95s or KN95s and the equivalent masks because these high-quality masks - if you're going to wear a mask, wear a high-quality mask. People should not be wearing a cloth mask thinking that they're well protected. There's a lot more that we can do that don't have to get into the category of mandating masks, which, at the end of the day, may not actually do that much in terms of reducing transmission on a population level.

FADEL: During the pandemic, the U.S. has typically followed the U.K. by a few weeks. And the U.K. has seen a significant increase in COVID from the BA.2 subvariant. What can we learn from health officials there?

WEN: Well, we've seen in the U.K. that indeed there has been a rise in cases due to BA.2, which is a lot more transmissible than even the original omicron variant. However, here in the U.S. thus far, and also what we saw in the U.K., too, is that there has been a decoupling between infections and hospitalizations. Here in the U.S., about 50% of the country contracted omicron during this last surge. And I certainly hope that that gives protection in addition to people who are vaccinated and boosted and therefore that can help to prevent our hospitals from once again becoming overwhelmed.

FADEL: Dr. Leana Wen is the former health commissioner of Baltimore. Thank you, Dr. Wen.

WEN: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.