By Charles Scudder
The “mask required” signs have disappeared from grocery stores. Large events that were canceled for two years running are now back on the calendar. No more stickers on the floor showing how far six feet apart is.
There’s no longer a masking requirement for most places in Dallas County. Workers are going back to the office. Case counts are down. Hospitalizations are down. Deaths are down.
Even Clay Jenkins, the county’s top leader in the fight against COVID-19, has stopped wearing his mask at Commissioners Court meetings.
So, what now?
“We do have extra freedom with the numbers going down,” Jenkins said. “We’re much safer now than we’ve been in a long time.”
This week also marked the first time commissioners have met while the county was at the yellow, or “proceed carefully,” threat level since last year.
Epidemiologists agree the global pandemic is not over, and some worry new variants lurking around the corner could soon cause more issues in the U.S. But looking around North Texas it’s hard not to think: Is this the new normal?
“It’s a new normal for now,” said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, chief of infectious disease at Houston’s UT Health. “What’s happening right now in most of the U.S. is that positivity rates are going down, case counts are going down and hospital occupancy is going down. The risk of getting COVID out in the community is very low.”
How cautious should you be?
Ostrosky said he’s been particularly cautious throughout the pandemic. He and his family have worn masks in public and haven’t eaten out since the pandemic began. Last weekend, however, he felt comfortable enough to take his family to get sushi — their first time dining in a restaurant in two years.
“This is kind of a new way of thinking,” he said. “It’s the right time to be doing stuff with low risk.”
Now is the time to go outside and enjoy the slump in community transmission, he says, because case counts are low, the vaccines are effective and there is less strain on the hospital system than any other time in the pandemic.
However, he and other public health officials still say caution is necessary in a lot of places. For example, in crowded areas — that can mean anything from a packed rock concert to a long grocery line — wearing a mask is still the smartest decision. For those who are immunocompromised or live with someone who is, masking should still be the norm.
In Dallas County, Jenkins said, masking is required in jail settings, hospitals and nursing homes. Federal guidelines still require masks on public transportation, like airplanes and DART vehicles. The county’s guidance for the yellow threat level spells out specific suggestions for those who are at high risk — including those who are unvaccinated — and those who are immunocompromised.
Jenkins and Dr. Philip Huang, the county’s public health director, also say it’s important to not judge others for wearing a mask if you are not. There are so many reasons someone may wear one — from visiting at-risk family members to worries for their own safety or others — that we may not see masking go away entirely anytime soon.
“It’s never a bad thing to wear a mask,” Huang said at this week’s Commissioners Court meeting. “There’s never a bad reason to do it. People shouldn’t feel bad about wearing them.”
BA.2 concerns on the horizon
But this new freedom and increased safety, experts say, is reliant on vaccination and boosting. Those who are not fully vaccinated or boosted, Ostrosky said, should not stop wearing masks or socially distancing.
“What we do know for a fact is people who are vaccinated and boosted are less likely to be hospitalized,” Ostrosky said. With the vaccine, “you’re more likely than ever to be fine.”
In Dallas County, more than 1.5 million people are fully vaccinated — but only about a third of them have had a booster dose. One of the only concerning statistics from Dallas County’s public health department lately: New vaccinations have dropped to less than 2,500 a week.
Jenkins said that’s troubling, especially as more variants develop.
“Every virus is constantly mutating to find a way to live,” Jenkins said. “It likely is a matter of time before the COVID virus mutates into something that transmits quicker or makes people sicker.”
Which is the big caveat with all the recent optimism about a light at the end of the tunnel. In Europe, the BA.2 strain is spreading rapidly. Already, it’s been found in North Texas and is taking up a greater share of the total number of positive cases, Huang said.
“We’re seeing a higher percentage of the new cases being BA.2 but that’s in the context of lower case numbers,” Huang said. “The numbers are declining, which is good.”
Ostrosky said it’s important to watch how BA.2 spreads, but that the impact on the community at large may be minimal. Hospitals are better equipped and more people are vaccinated than ever before. Different factors for immunity — including vaccination and a large share of people who caught the first omicron variant — mean most people may have a better tolerance. Those who are boosted, he said, certainly do.
“We’re always hopeful,” Ostrosky said. “It’s definitely something to watch.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the county had never before been in the yellow or “proceed carefully” threat level for COVID-19. It was also in yellow in June 2021.