NY, California Mask Mandates Not Overreaction to Omicron COVID Variant, Scientists Say

Measures to control the spread of the Omicron COVID variant are not an overreaction, scientists have said, as mask mandates make a return for some Americans.

California and New York both announced this week that residents would have to wear face coverings indoors. The two states are reporting several thousand new COVID infections every day, including some cases of the Omicron variant.

New York's move was announced on December 10 and came into effect three days later, while California's mandate came into effect on December 15.

The number of daily COVID cases in the U.S. has been on the rise in December, from a seven-day rolling average of 86,530 on the 1st to 121,573 on the 7th, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The latest CDC data, for December 13, showed the seven-day average stood at 117,890.

Omicron is circulating in the country, though official reports suggest not as badly as in European countries such as Denmark and the U.K. where the variant is expected to overtake Delta. However, it is possible that U.S. Omicron cases are much higher than official figures suggest.

Despite concerns that Omicron may be more transmissible than Delta and perhaps also more resistant to vaccines, some have pointed to reports that the mutated virus causes mild cases—something the World Health Organization has also acknowledged.

South African medic Angelique Coetzee has said the U.K.'s responses to Omicron, including travel bans and warnings of a "tidal wave" of infections, are an "overreaction." In an op-ed for British newspaper the Daily Mail published on Monday, she wrote: "They bear no relation to what we're seeing in surgeries in South Africa, where people rarely even discuss Omicron."

A number of scientists have told Newsweek that although travel bans are indeed contentious, governments have not been overreacting to Omicron. One suggested they had not gone far enough.

"In crises like these—and it is going to be a crisis—early and strong action is key," Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer in machine learning at Queen Mary University of London, told Newsweek. "The U.K. government reaction, which is largely very reliant on boosters, is not sufficient. It's an underreaction that will very likely cost lives, rather than an overreaction.

"Overall, the impact, even if it were milder—and there is no current evidence to suggest this—will be determined by exponential growth, rather than any linear reduction in severity, simply because of the sheer number of people impacted."

Jerome Adams, a former U.S. surgeon general and a former Indiana state health commissioner, voiced concerns about health care workers and resources in the U.S., saying they were "at their breaking point" regardless of variants.

Adams told Newsweek: "I don't think people are overreacting to Omicron, so much as they are appropriately reacting to what it represents.

"What it represents is the reality that COVID and more variants will be with us through most of 2022, and that the idea of a variant that is much more contagious and evades both vaccines and therapeutics isn't a fantasy, but is happening right before our eyes."

Jonathan Abraham, an assistant professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School, said he did not support travel bans—a sentiment echoed by others who argue that they punish countries that alert the world to new variants—but does not think governments or the scientific community is overreacting.

"At this point of the pandemic, I favor the approach of being as prudent as possible in not underestimating what any SARS-CoV-2 variant can do," Abraham told Newsweek. "Until the molecular mechanisms that underpin the potentially reduced virulence of Omicron are sorted out, we should all be keeping our guards up.

"Given that Delta is still around, adding Omicron to the mix with the holidays nearing may cause a great deal of social disruption and overburden health care systems that are already stressed."

Face mask sign
A sign in a shop window asking customers to wear face masks, pictured in Washington, D.C. on July 30. New mask mandates have been introduced in New York and California. Kevin Dietsch/Getty