The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, recently changed its masking recommendations for the nation, affecting decisions at the university, city and county level in Athens.
Because of vaccination and immunity gained from previously having the virus, many people are now at a lower risk for being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19, according to the CDC’s website.
New CDC recommendations reflect not only how many cases the county has but how full hospitals are in the area. In the week following these new recommendations’ release, Ohio University changed its masking rules, and the city did not renew its mask ordinance.
Athens County is currently at the CDC’s medium level, and it had 115 cases between Feb. 17 and Feb. 24, according to the state of Ohio’s website. The CDC’s community level recommendations are based on the weekly number of cases, and this number would put Athens County into the classification for counties that have had fewer than 200 cases per 100,000 residents.
For residents in a county with medium community spread, the CDC doesn’t list masks as a recommendation for most residents. It does, however, recommend vaccination and boosters as well as requesting those who test positive for COVID-19 follow isolation and quarantine guidelines.
For those who are at a higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, the new guidelines recommend discussing mask wearing and COVID-19 treatments with a doctor and having rapid test supplies on hand.
For the governing bodies of Athens and Ohio University, the CDC’s new guidelines weren’t the only thing being considered for updated masking guidelines, but it did influence the decisions that were made.
“Council, as a body, trusts the CDC guidelines, as does the city-county health department,” Chris Knisely, Athens City Council president, said. “I'm very guarded about it just because I think that there have been so many deaths nationwide, and there have been a significant number of deaths in Athens County. Our county has a low vaccination rate, and so I'm still really concerned.”
Members of Council decided to indefinitely postpone action on the mask mandate, ending the requirements for the city of Athens and its citizens.
While Council and OU officials have discussed COVID-19 prevention and measures, the university and the city did not coordinate on the removal of masks at the same time, Gillian Ice, special assistant to the president for public health operations, said.
Masks are still required in the university’s classroom settings in hopes of keeping numbers low following spring break.
Additionally, Ice said the measure is precautionary for faculty, staff and students who are at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
“We wanted to make sure that everyone is safe in the classroom because you have to be there,” Ice said.
Ice said if Athens County enters the high community spread category, the university will consider requiring masks again but will be looking at the risk throughout the community and on campus before making that decision.
James Gaskell, health commissioner of the Athens City-County Health Department, said after vaccinations and the omicron variant swept through Athens, there is the possibility for a shift toward endemic status.
“As Delta began to wane, we got Omicron,” Gaskell said. “Not as many people died from Omicron, but it certainly was highly contagious — so contagious it possibly infected so many people that there aren’t a whole lot of people left to infect. And, in a way, that's how you can convert a pandemic to an endemic situation.”
Overall, Gaskell said masks have been a major precaution throughout the pandemic, and seeing a change in that guidance means the CDC has confidence in a decrease of cases.
“This is a really good sign that the CDC, which is a very conservative organization, is taking this right now,” Gaskell said. “This is a sign that indeed the pandemic is certainly beginning to wane, and I'll be watching to see what happens with the cases as we take away our masks.”