MORGANTOWN — The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of sometimes-conflicting information regarding mask-wearing policies from federal and state officials, requiring local institutions and agencies to review their policies and plans.
On May 7, Gov. Jim Justice stated during a press briefing that the mask mandate in West Virginia would be repealed June 20 — West Virginia’s birthday.
Justice’s reasoning for the impending repeal included projections by health officials that indicate 65% of West Virginians age 12 and older will have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at that time.
On May 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that individuals who have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19 no longer need to wear masks under its public health recommendations.
The CDC updated its guidelines for fully vaccinated individuals to reflect this announcement.
“If you’ve been fully vaccinated: You can resume activities you did prior to the pandemic; you can resume activities without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance. …” The CDC guidelines read as of May 16.
On May 14, Justice once again tackled the topic of the mask mandate in a press briefing.
During that briefing, Justice announced that West Virginia will follow the guidelines outlined by the CDC by repealing the mask mandate only for vaccinated residents of the state effective immediately.
For non-vaccinated residents of the state, the mask mandate will remain in effect for the time being, but will still be lifted June 20.
Justice’s initial guidance dictated that local institutions such as West Virginia University and health agencies like Mon Health System and WVU Medicine needed to reevaluate their own current and future policies.
President and CEO of Mon Health System David Goldberg said the agency will continue to wear masks as policy to ensure it mitigates risks of spread, as there are still chose who have not been vaccinated.
“We want to be safe, follow the science and ensure a safe clinical environment while COVID-19 is still present in the communities we serve,” he said.
At this time, Mon Health is not making any alterations to its previously established protocols.
According to April Kaull, executive director of Communications and University Relations with WVU, the university plans to follow health and safety protocols recommended by the CDC on all campuses. The university also anticipates current policies will remain in effect at the start of the semester for things such as mask-wearing, contact tracing, quarantining and travel.
The university will continuously monitor public health guidance and disease transmission rates to make final determinations on these policies in the weeks ahead.
The university is not making any immediate changes to its plans as a result of the CDC’s new recommendations, but the institutions will review the new guidance in the coming weeks.
Dr. Jeffery Coben, vice president of Health Affairs and dean of the School of Public Health, said WVU’s goal is to get its students, faculty and staff vaccinated as quickly as possible so that the university can begin to resume activities and campus experiences over the summer and into the fall semester.
“We work closely with state and local officials and will continue to monitor the health status of our campus communities to determine if scenarios exist where we can loosen restrictions based on our vaccination rates,” he said.
Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president and executive dean of Health Sciences at WVU and coronavirus czar for the state of West Virginia, said that the governor’s initial decision to repeal the mask mandate June 20 was advised by health officials.
Marsh pointed to the CDC’s guidance, which came after Justice’s initial announcement that he intended to repeal the mask mandate, as evidence that Justice’s decision was not misguided.
“We had targeted June 20, as the state’s birthday, to remove those masks indoors because we have projected that with the right engagement of our West Virginia residents that we would be able to have at least one vaccine dose in the arm of 65% of our vaccine-eligible people, which would now be 12 and over,” he said.
Marsh said health officials also projected that 75% of the state’s over-50 population would have at least one vaccine dose by that date. That group accounts for 95% to 97% of individuals in West Virginia who have died of COVID-19.
It is also projected that 85% of the over-65 population will have at least one vaccine dose by June 20. This group accounts for about 80% of COVID-19 deaths in the state.
“We projected that we would be able to get the levels of vaccination in our most-susceptible people and our total population that we felt that that would be an appropriate and good time to remove the masks,” Marsh said.
In terms of enforcing the CDC and Justice’s new guidelines regarding the ability of fully vaccinated individuals to stop wearing masks in most indoor and outdoor spaces, it seems that the honor system is the only way the new protocol can be conducted.
Marsh said it would be extremely difficult for stores or restaurants in West Virginia to make sure that only fully vaccinated individuals are inside of their establishments without a mask.
However, he also said that unvaccinated and unmasked individuals do not pose a threat to fully vaccinated individuals who are also not wearing a mask.
“Being totally vaccinated … provides sufficient protection that even if you get exposed to people with COVID-19, then at the very most you would anticipate — even if you had a breakthrough infection — that you would likely not get really sick or be hospitalized or die of COVID-19,” he said.
The CDC has reported about 10,000 instances of breakthrough COVID-19 infections in the United States.
“These vaccines are really, incredibly effective at reducing the risk of really severe disease, hospitalization or dying,” Marsh said. “So I think that they’re presuming, as part of the guidance, that there will be people who are not vaccinated who take off their mask and you won’t really be able to tell the difference … but even if you’re exposed to those kind of folks, you should still feel protected by being fully vaccinated.”
Marsh said it is still important for each West Virginian to recognize that choices regarding where they go, whether they wear a mask and whether they practice social distancing, are choices that are theirs to make.