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Maryland needs a new mask mandate | READER COMMENTARY

In April 2020, as the first wave of COVID-19 was hitting Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan acted early, decisively, and effectively with a statewide mask mandate, preventing countless illnesses and saving many lives.

Today, we are well into another wave of COVID, driven by the delta variant. Where is that Governor Hogan now? The people of Maryland sure could use his help.

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The first wave was different in many ways. We didn’t have enough actual masks to go around; Governor Hogan’s order called for use of “face coverings,” explicitly allowing improvised solutions like scarves and bandanas. We didn’t know as much as we do now about what spreads the virus; remember Youtube videos urging people to scrub down their groceries? We didn’t have easy access to COVID testing; now you can buy at-home antigen tests from the drugstore, or get a more accurate PCR test at any urgent-care clinic. And now we have several vaccines, which provide some (but not complete) protection against COVID-19, and reduce (but don’t eliminate) the risk of hospitalization or death for those who get sick.

April 22, 2020: Gov. Larry Hogan sports a locally-made "Maryland Strong" face mask at a press conference announcing the opening of the UM Laurel Medical Center. The former Laurel Regional Hospital has 135 beds to handle the potential surge of patients during the coronavirus pandemic.
April 22, 2020: Gov. Larry Hogan sports a locally-made "Maryland Strong" face mask at a press conference announcing the opening of the UM Laurel Medical Center. The former Laurel Regional Hospital has 135 beds to handle the potential surge of patients during the coronavirus pandemic. (Amy Davis)

But some things aren’t so different. The day Governor Hogan issued that executive order in April 2020, Maryland averaged 67 reported COVID cases per 100,000 people per week. As of Aug. 20, 2021, we’re at 112 reported cases per 100,000 per week. Back then, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was recommending nationwide use of face coverings, which Maryland implemented. Today, they’re recommending masking in counties with “substantial” or “high” COVID rates – which Maryland should also implement, given that by Aug.13, 2021, every county in our state fell into one of these categories.

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Three weeks ago, when the CDC issued their recommendations, only two counties in Maryland had “substantial” COVID rates, and none had “high”. Since then, COVID rates in Maryland have increased threefold.

Perhaps earlier action could have kept us from getting to where we are now. Many COVID experts, including the two of us, think the CDC’s new guidelines may if anything be too lax. One of us (Allan Massie) got COVID last month, despite being vaccinated, from another vaccinated individual in Montgomery County, when that county’s incidence was on the low end of the “moderate” category.

But regardless, we are where we are now. COVID cases in Maryland are doubling every 11 days, and hospitalizations are doubling every 15 days. High-quality masks are cheap and plentiful. In a few weeks, schools will start up. Many Maryland counties aren’t requiring masks in public schools, even though children under age 12 can’t get a vaccine. Some states are now running out of hospital beds, including pediatric hospital beds, and some governors who eschewed mask mandates are now asking doctors to delay non-emergency medical procedures such as cancer surgeries. Do we really want this for Maryland?

Governor Hogan’s emergency order in April 2020 cited the authority of the CDC in ordering the critically important and lifesaving indoor mask mandate. The governor lifted this mask mandate on May 15, again citing the updated CDC guidance. Now the delta variant has hit, cases are on the rise, and CDC is telling us we need to bring back the masks. Once again, it’s time for the governor to listen.

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Dorry Segev MD PhD is a surgeon and biomedical researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; Allan Massie PhD is an epidemiologist and biomedical researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The views expressed here are their own.

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