Public Health

Covid masks mandates ought to be lifted as a final resort

Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Friday that he believes the governors are right to begin easing Covid restrictions on businesses as long as the mask guidelines remain in place.

“I think it is advisable to leave the masks in place as this is the last thing we lift,” said the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner on Squawk Box.

Gottlieb made his comments a day after Connecticut Democratic Governor Ned Lamont announced a relaxation of restrictions due to take effect this month. This includes, among other things, the lifting of capacity restrictions for restaurants, churches, hair salons and retail stores from March 19. Lamont, however, retains the nationwide mask mandate. Texas and Mississippi – two republican governor-led states that recently lifted pandemic restrictions – are also removing their mask mandates.

Gottlieb said he found Lamont’s approach the right one given the advances in Covid vaccinations. Gottlieb, a Connecticut resident, was on a pandemic advisory team for Lamont.

“I think it’s the kind of thing we have to do across the country, at least provide a map of where we are going if the situation continues to improve without ever taking our foot off the brakes,” said Gottlieb. who headed the FDA in the Trump administration from 2017 to 2019.

Coronavirus cases in America have fallen sharply from their peak in January, which coincided with the continued roll-out of Covid vaccinations to a larger segment of the country’s population. At the same time, senior health officials have urged U.S. citizens to avoid complacency, warning that more contagious variants of the virus are threatening to undermine the nation’s progress.

“So much can change in the next few weeks,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky this week. “How that works is up to us. The next three months are crucial.”

Dr. White House chief medical officer Anthony Fauci told CNN on Thursday that the resetting of restrictions was “inexplicable” at the moment.

Gottlieb – a member of Pfizer’s board of directors who makes a Covid vaccine – said the emerging strains of the virus are important in keeping an eye out for states that intend to relax restrictions. The B117 variant, first discovered in the UK, grows in Connecticut, Gottlieb said. “If the situation changes, they will surely re-evaluate it.”

Lamont’s withdrawal of Connecticut restrictions is vastly different from the action taken by Texas GOP Governor Greg Abbott, who declared his state “100% OPEN” in a tweet earlier this week.

In Connecticut, performing arts venues and cinema capacity will continue to be capped at 50%. Additionally, dining rooms in restaurants must close at 11 p.m. ET.

Gottlieb said personally he would continue to avoid eating indoors, an attitude he maintained during the pandemic. “I will certainly be going to restaurants in the course of March, but I will eat outside,” said Gottlieb. “It just doesn’t seem like a risk worth taking for me.”

At the same time, Gottlieb said that the general risk dynamics for Covid had changed significantly due to the introduction of the vaccine.

As of Thursday, around 16% of the US population had received at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses, while the recently approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single shot.

About 21% of Connecticut residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to the CDC.

“Connecticut has done a lot better than most states at getting vaccines into the elderly,” added Gottlieb. “You took an age-based approach. You have been very successful in vaccinating at age 65. As the general population becomes less vulnerable, you can lean forward a little.” Age is one of the biggest risk factors for developing severe Covid and possibly dying.

“If we now have 1,000 infections in the state, that’s a big difference from 1,000 infections 10 months ago when none of the state’s vulnerable residents were vaccinated,” said Gottlieb. “I think you need to try to find a way that will allow people to gradually return to normal activities.”

Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC employee and a member of the boards of directors of Pfizer, genetic testing startup Tempus, healthcare technology company Aetion, and Illumina biotech. He is also co-chair of the Healthy Sail Panel for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Royal Caribbean.

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