DC to lift indoor mask mandate for most public settings

Washington, D.C., will lift its indoor mask mandate for most locations beginning Nov. 22, Mayor Muriel BowserMuriel BowserBowser extends DC mask mandate through February Mask rules spark political games and a nasty environment in the House DC adding vaccine, testing centers as region's COVID-19 death rate increases MORE (D) announced Tuesday.

The mandate for masks in most indoor locations, which was one of the strictest remaining in the country, has been in place since July, when the delta variant of the coronavirus began spreading rapidly across the U.S.

“This does not mean that … everyone needs to stop wearing their mask, but it does mean that we’re shifting the government’s response to providing you this risk-based information and recommending layering strategies as the best way to protect yourself and the community,” Bowser said during a news conference.

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Masks will still be required in schools and on public transportation, as well as in congregate housing facilities and D.C. government facilities with public-facing roles, Bowser said. Private businesses will also be free to instate their own mandates.

Bowser said vaccines are working for preventing severe disease and hospitalization, and D.C. residents will be able to assess their own risks and make their own decisions about wearing masks.

City officials did not indicate if there were any specific metrics that led to the decision to lift the mask mandate, saying only that vaccination efforts have been successful. Officials also did not give a direct answer as to whether the mandate would ever need to be reinstated. 

D.C. department of health director LaQuandra Nesbitt said the agency is tracking changes to the virus, and will keep the public informed if there need to be changes made to the mitigation strategies.

Neighboring Montgomery County in Maryland, which has a higher vaccination rate than D.C., lifted its indoor mask mandate recently, based on case metrics and a lower level of community transmission. But levels almost immediately rose, re-triggering the mandate. 

Case numbers in D.C. have plateaued for at least a week, remaining at about 80-90 cases a week for every 100,000 residents. But Bowser said vaccinations are keeping these infections relatively mild, meaning the vaccinated are not being hospitalized. 

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"Despite the increase we're seeing in breakthrough infections ... we have not seen an increase in the number or proportion of fully vaccinated persons who are hospitalized," Nesbitt said. "Nearly 100 percent of COVID-19 related hospitalizations have occurred in unvaccinated persons." 

Nesbitt said D.C. is moving towards viewing COVID-19 as endemic, where it's more like the flu; a virus that exists, but with a risk that's managed and that people live with every day. 

The city is shifting its public reporting and tracking metrics so people can better understand their own risks and community risks, as well as the long-term strategy for COVID-19, Nesbitt said. That means some of the dashboards will change to better reflect that view. 

For example, testing capacity and testing turnaround times haven't changed in months, so it's not helpful to have people "fixate" on that, Nesbitt said. The idea is to help the public separate the metrics that are important and influence the city's policies from those that are not. 

Nesbitt said it's also more helpful at this stage to report on the percentage of new cases that are hospitalized, rather than the percentage of all hospitalizations that have COVID-19. That can help people better assess their own individual risk.

The public largely doesn't track the day-to-day minutiae of how the city deals with the flu, and Nesbitt said she wants to start moving in that direction with COVID-19.  

Bowser acknowledged that cases in D.C. are likely to rise going into the winter, just as they are in other parts of the country. But vaccinations help and will keep hospitalizations low, she said.

Updated at 1:20 p.m.