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Arizona health expert Will Humble thinks it's time to loosen some mask rules

Arizona health officials added 2,781 new cases of COVID-19 and another 209 fatalities to its daily dashboard on Thursday. There was also an increase in hospital patients in critical care, but the number of inpatient cases overall in hospitals is at its lowest level since November.

And, as these case numbers continue to decline, some areas might revisit whether to keep mask requirements in place or begin to lift them. The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted this week not to extend its mask mandate going forward.

This is also happening at the same time people who received their booster shots may start to lose efficacy.

Will Humble, the executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association and former state health director, joined The Show to discuss whether mask requirements should be a thing of the past and where the state should go from here.

Interview highlights

Is it time to start lifting mask requirements?

It depends on what you're talking about. In the highest priority, I think, for continuing to keep the mask requirements in place are like assisted living facilities and skilled nursing. So I'm talking about the staff in those places. Shelters for people experiencing homelessness. Those types of environments are really important to continue to have universal masking in indoor places, especially with staff. When it comes to community masking, I think it's becoming increasingly less important to have those restrictions in place where they exist. ... Assisted living, skilled nursing, doctor's offices, the homeless shelters — definitely keep the masking. Places like schools? I could definitely see schools deciding, "Look after spring break, we're just going to come back and not have a mask requirement in place" — for those districts that do have those in place.

What about workplaces?

Yeah, it depends on the workplace. If you're a workplace that's dealing with persons that are vulnerable — let's say you're providing outpatient treatment for something, physical therapy, working with vulnerable folks — for sure keep the masking. For those types of businesses in environments where that's not the case, then I think it's reasonable to start planning to reduce those restrictions now. And it's not so much, by the way, because of the reduction in cases. What's most significant to me is looking at the number of new hospitalizations and new emergency department visits. Those are dropping pretty dramatically — faster, actually, than the case counts.

As we do that, are we inviting another wave upon us? If we kind of let our guard down, is this what caused it last time?

Well, so we're in a different place now. And the reason we're in a different place is because of omicron. So all those persons that were unwilling or unable to get vaccinated during 2021 basically got infected by omicron. I mean, they may not know it, but they probably were infected by omicron. As many as 80% of the omicron infections were asymptomatic. So people who don't think they were infected most likely were if they were previously unvaccinated. What that means is we've got a lot more antibodies and especially cell-mediated immunity, T cell immunity, within our population because of omicron, because of how contagious it was. So, we're in a very different place than we were in the summer of 2021. 

There's some new data out showing that boosters may kind of wane in their efficacy. Is it time to start thinking about another booster?

Yeah, I think there are conversations happening right now in doctor's offices, geriatric offices ... for people over 70, for example, where their primary care docs are talking to their patients about a fourth shot. So, that conversation is going to become more and more frequent. And it's all about risks and benefits. One of the things we know about this vaccine is it's super safe. Especially for somebody who has ... three shots already, and didn't have an adverse reaction.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.