Nevada, feds, reevaluating health guidelines

A week after Gov. Steve Sisolak ended Nevada’s mask mandate as the Omicron surge declined, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reevaluating its public health guidelines for prevention strategies, including recommendations for when people should don face coverings.

“We are assessing the most important factors based on where we are in the pandemic,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters Wednesday, “and will soon put guidance in place that is relevant and encourages prevention measures when they are most needed to protect public health and our hospitals.”

Walensky emphasized the importance of not just using case levels as a metric for prevention strategies. She said officials should also consider other factors such as hospital capacity and the severity of the virus outbreak.

“We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen,” she said.

Along with the shifting guidance from the CDC, changes surrounding how hospitals report COVID-19 cases are expected from the federal government soon. Officials from the Nevada Hospital Association said the changes are designed to distinguish between patients hospitalized because of COVID-19 from patients with “incidental cases” — those who are hospitalized for a different chief complaint such as trauma or cardiac issues, who also happen to have COVID-19.

Walensky’s announcement and the expected shift in how hospitals report COVID-19 cases arrive in the wake of mixed and often polarized responses to Sisolak’s mask mandate repeal. Though some local businesses celebrated the ending of the indoor mask mandate with Instagram videos of employees throwing their masks into the air, others reiterated they would continue to require masks indoors, asking customers to be respectful of the decision.

Removal of the mask mandate leaves the decision to wear a mask to the grocery store, a hair appointment, the workplace or a meet-up with friends primarily to personal choice.

The policy changes point to a broader question: What new phase of the pandemic is Nevada entering?

In the week since Sisolak lifted the mask mandate, cases, hospitalizations and test positivity rates have continued to tick down. As of Thursday, 627 new cases were reported on average each day over the previous seven days, down from 1,313 last week and significantly lower than the highest point of the Omicron wave when the state was reporting an average of around 6,300 cases a day. Additionally, 741 people were hospitalized with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, down from 1,044 last week. Test positivity has also dipped, hitting roughly 17.9 percent Thursday, the lowest positivity rate the state has seen since test positivity reached 35.6 percent in mid-January during the height of the Omicron wave.

The concentration of the virus in wastewater samples has also continued to decline in Northern and Southern Nevada. Still, as Walensky said during the COVID-19 press briefing Wednesday, the pandemic has not ended.

“I know that everyone is anxious to move beyond this pandemic and some of the ways we have had to change how we live over the last two years,” she said. “Moving from this pandemic will be a process led by science and epidemiologic trends, and one that relies on the powerful tools we already have, including vaccines, boosters, testing and treatment.”

The virus is here to stay, said Dr. Bayo Curry-Winchell, an urgent care physician who serves on the governor’s medical advisory team. She said people need to adjust how they respond depending on personal circumstances, comfort levels, case rates and other factors.

Nevada is entering a new stage of the pandemic where residents will have to ask themselves “how do we live with the virus?” Curry-Winchell said. Viruses naturally mutate, and it is only a matter of time before the next variant arrives.

The pandemic's trajectory remains unpredictable, Curry-Winchell added, noting that lifting the mask mandate signifies a move away from government-imposed regulations and toward personal responsibility as far as mask-wearing and other preventative measures.

“Everyone has a different relationship with how they have approached COVID-19. And so I think understanding that, and then making that outline to best serve yourself and your family, is important now more than ever,” she said.