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Mask mandates can help reduce the strain on hospitals, CDC says

Covid-19-related hospitalizations fall when states require masks and other face coverings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday.

The CDC analysis of the effect of mask mandates in 10 states found that such requirements led to a decline of 5.5 percentage points in hospitalization growth rates, compared with data from the month before the mandate. The directives called for people to wear coverings over their mouths and noses outside their home, and especially in restaurants and retail businesses.

States included in the report were California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Oregon.

The CDC found that weekly hospitalization rates declined by 2.9 percentage points among adults between the ages of 40 and 64 during the first two weeks after implementation of mandates. After at least three weeks, the decline grew to 5.5 percentage points among all adults under age 65.

“SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes [Covid-19], is transmitted predominantly by respiratory droplets generated when infected persons cough, sneeze, spit, sing, talk, or breathe,” the study authors wrote, adding that masks are part of a “multipronged strategy to decrease exposure to and transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and reduce strain on the health care system.”

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Data included in the new report was collected from March to October 2020. President Joe Biden recently issued an executive order requiring that people wear masks while on federal property. The CDC followed shortly after with a directive that anyone using public transportation must also wear a mask.

New Covid-19 cases continue to decline. “The number of new cases on February 3 of approximately 121,000 represents a 61 percent decrease since the peak on January 8,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing with reporters on Friday.

What’s more, “the number of new hospital admissions reported on February 2 — approximately 10,500 — was down nearly 42 percent since the hospitalization peak of 18,000 reported on January 5,” Walensky said.

Still, it’s too soon to draw a direct link between the recent federal mask mandates and the decline in Covid-19 cases and/or hospitalizations.

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“I do think a mask mandate is helping protect people,” Walensky said. “But what also is happening is that we are coming off of the case bomb from the holidays,” referring to the spike in cases following gatherings during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Any decrease in hospitalizations is welcome news to those on the front lines of treating patients.

“If you decrease hospitalizations, you are no longer overwhelming health care systems,” said Dr. Hugh Cassiere, director of critical care services for Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital at North Shore University Hospital, part of Northwell Health, on Long Island, New York.

“That’s important because you can still continue to take care of patients who come into the hospital for other types of medical diseases like pneumonia, heart attacks and strokes — things that were really neglected in some hospitals because there were no beds or no facilities to take care of those patients who needed care,” he said.

What good are mask mandates? The CDC reports that requiring masks can help lessen the strain on hospital systems.

New Covid strain: How worried should we be?

By James Gallagher
Health and science correspondent

15 December 2020

I have one simple rule for making sense of “new variant” or “new strain” coronavirus stories.

Ask: “Has the virus’s behaviour changed?”

A mutated virus sounds instinctively scary, but to mutate and change is what viruses do.

Most of the time it is either a meaningless tweak or the virus alters itself in such a way that it gets worse at infecting us and the new variant just dies out.

Occasionally it hits on a new winning formula.

There is no clear-cut evidence the new variant of coronavirus – which has been detected in south-east England – is able to transmit more easily, cause more serious symptoms or render the vaccine useless.

However, there are two reasons scientists are keeping a close eye on it.

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The first is that levels of the variant are higher in places where cases are higher.

It is a warning sign, although it can be interpreted in two ways.

The virus could have mutated to spread more easily and is causing more infections.

But variants can also get a lucky break by infecting the right people at the right time. One explanation for the spread of the “Spanish strain” over the summer was simply people catching it on holiday and then bringing it home.

It will take experiments in the laboratory to figure out if this variant really is a better spreader than all the others.

The other issue that is raising scientific eyebrows is how the virus has mutated.

“It has a surprisingly large number of mutations, more than we would expect, and a few look interesting,” Prof Nick Loman from the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium told me.

There are two notable sets of mutation – and I apologise for their hideous names.

Both are found in the crucial spike protein, which is the key the virus uses to unlock the doorway into our body’s cells in order to hijack them.

The mutation N501 (I did warn you) alters the most important part of the spike, known as the “receptor-binding domain”.

This is where the spike makes first contact with the surface of our body’s cells. Any changes that make it easier for the virus to get inside are likely to give it an edge.

“It looks and smells like an important adaptation,” said Prof Loman.

The other mutation – a H69/V70 deletion – has emerged several times before, including famously in infected mink.

The concern was that antibodies from the blood of survivors was less effective at attacking that variant of virus.

Again, it is going to take more laboratory studies to really understand what is going on.

Prof Alan McNally, from the University of Birmingham, said: “We know there’s a variant, we know nothing about what that means biologically.

“It is far too early to make any inference on how important this may or may not be.”

Mutations to the spike protein lead to questions about the vaccine because the three leading jabs – Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford – all train the immune system to attack the spike.

However, the body learns to attack multiple parts of the spike. That is why health officials remain convinced the vaccine will work against this variant.

This is a virus that evolved in animals and made the jump to infecting people around a year ago.

Since then it has been picking up around two mutations a month – take a sample today and compare it to the first ones from Wuhan in China and there would be around 25 mutations separating them.

Coronavirus is still trying out different combinations of mutations to properly nail infecting humans.

We have seen this happen before: The emergence and global dominance of another variant (G614) is seen by many as the virus getting better at spreading.

But soon mass vaccination will put a different kind of pressure on the virus because it will have to change in order to infect people who have been immunized.

If this does drive the evolution of the virus, we may have to regularly update the vaccines, as we do for flu, to keep up.

Scientists will keep a close eye on this variant to see if it is a better spreader than others.