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COVID-19 Update: Will mask mandates return?

By Meg Dickens
Staff Writer

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a whirlwind of confusion and is full of unanswered questions. Groups have been arguing about whether masks are a necessity or even helpful since the very beginning. Some local individuals refuse to get vaccinated or follow other regulations due to personal beliefs. The dust began to settle recently until the Delta variant reared its head. Now increased outbreaks have many health departments requesting indoor mask mandates to return despite recent guidance.

The Center for Disease Control guidelines (CDC) released an updated list of interim public health recommendations for fully vaccinated people on Friday, July 16. These guidelines state that fully vaccinated adults outside of healthcare settings can resume activities without social distancing or wearing a mask as long as it does not interfere with “federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.” 

Despite these guidelines, many vaccinated adults are continuing to “mask up” as a safety measure. Several groups, such as the Johnson County Senior Center, have adults that are doing so but do not enforce it. Experts seem split on whether wearing a mask will help slow the spread, but American Epidemiologist Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove’s professional opinion is that continuing to exercise safety measures would be beneficial.

“There are a number of factors that are contributing to increased transmission around the world,” said Dr. Kerkhove in a July podcast with the World Health Organization (WHO). “The first are these variants of concern, including the Delta variant. The second factor is that we have increased social mixing and increased social mobility, which increases the number of contacts that individuals have. The third factor is the relaxation or the inappropriate use of public health and social measures. Proven public health and social measures, that we know prevent infections, reduce the spread of somebody who is infected with the virus to others, and save lives.”

Johnson County was relatively slow to become infected during the beginning of the pandemic, but cases spread to the hundreds not long after, with the most recent statistics showing 2,417 reported in total. Since this time last year, the Tennessee Department of Health reports 39 COVID-related deaths in Johnson County. At the time of this article, there are 16 known active cases.

The Tomahawk spoke with Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office Public Information Officer Jayne Harper about the department’s views on returning to mask mandates. Harper reports that the organization plans to follow the state and CDC guidelines and made no indication of joining the push to return to mask mandates.

For more information on the Johnson County Health Department or schedule a COVID-19 vaccination, call (423) 727-9731. Find the closest vaccine option at vaccines.gov.