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KUNC is among the founding partners of the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of public media stations that serve the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

States Roll Back COVID-19 Precautions As Troubling New Strains Start To Spread

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte on Friday lifted the state-wide mask mandate.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte on Friday lifted the state-wide mask mandate.

In the Mountain West and across the country, states are rolling back COVID-19 restrictions like mask mandates and allowing more people to gather. While this was largely a response to reduced infection numbers, new strains of the virus are on the move.

“Now is not the time to let the guard down,” said Melissa Marx, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Science is showing that some new strains of the coronavirus are easier to spread, and Marx said it’s natural for a virus to mutate this way to survive. However, she said that means states shouldn’t be so quick to roll back regulations, especially things like mask mandates.

“All the states around the U.S. should reconsider rescinding mask mandates ... and consider whether more infections and more deaths are worth the gain that they might get by opening up too quickly,” Marx said.

She pointed to thresholds states set up months ago, and how states keep changing those numbers to open up faster, even if that’s at odds with the science.

“I think they need to look at the benchmarks that they set out previously and ask themselves why they're changing their benchmarks,” she said.

Ultimately, she said she’s hopeful for new vaccines, but is also wary that some may not be as efficacious against the new strains. With that in mind, she says we’ll only get this completely under control when we slow the virus down enough that it can’t mutate further.

“As long as we have disparities in vaccine access, we will continue to be vulnerable to new variations, new emergence of new strains in other places,” she said.

She said that means getting vaccines to every underserved community in the U.S. and the globe, and in the meantime, continuing to distance, wear masks and wash our hands.

Marx said she recently increased her caution indoors, wearing two masks to enhance her protection. On Wednesday, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released new research showing that wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask offers more protection against COVID-19.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.