President Joe Biden was harsh in his criticism of the states’ decisions at the time.
“The last thing — the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it. It still matters,” Biden said.
One possible reason that the states have seen declining cases even as the pandemic has worsened in states such as Michigan and New Jersey is that the variant from the United Kingdom, known as B.1.1.7, has not yet spread through Mississippi and Texas as it has in other states. That variant is estimated to be 40% to 70% more transmissible than the original virus.
“The reason you’re not seeing a rise in states in the South is that the variant did not seed there as it did in the North,” said Dr. Manoj Jain, an infectious disease physician at the Rollins School of Public Health. “It is almost certain that we will see the same rise in the South that we are seeing in the North.”
The first known cases of the U.K. variant in the United States were reported in Colorado and California.
On Wednesday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said that the U.K. variant now accounted for 26% of new cases and was the predominant strain in five regions — but she did not specify which regions. Chances are that Mississippi and Texas are not in those regions. Confirmed cases of the variant in Mississippi are about 1.3 per 100,000 population, and in Texas, it is 1.4. By comparison, in New Jersey, it is about 4.4 per 100,000, in Colorado, it is 8.1. and in Michigan, it is 12.4. In California, where cases have been declining, variant cases are 2.1 per 100,000.
It is also likely that much of the population in Mississippi and Texas are still wearing masks.
“Mandates and behavior are two different things,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director at the American Public Health Association. “We know that in Texas, whereas the governor said the mandate is gone, many businesses did not revert to not requiring people to enter without a mask.”
Walgreens, CVS, Kroger, Target, Macy’s, and Aldi were just a few of the businesses that said they would still require a mask to be worn on their premises in Mississippi and Texas. That could mean that where people tend to congregate, they are required to wear masks.
Mask-wearing may make only a small difference in preventing viral spread.
Recent research from the CDC examined counties in the first 100 days after masks were mandated and found relatively modest effects. Counties in states that issued mask mandates saw COVID-19 cases drop by half of a percentage point in the first 20 days. The effect grew, topping out at a decline of 1.8 percentage points between days 81 and 100. Deaths dropped by 0.7 percentage points in the first 20 days and 1.9 percentage points in days 81 to 100.