AUSTIN (KXAN) — The recent explosion of COVID-19 infections fueled by the omicron variant means people should once again wear a mask as part of their arsenal to defend themselves against the more easily spread virus, local leaders advised Thursday.
One official after another sounded the alarm about the urgency to mask when they announced during a virtual news conference the Austin-Travis County area would return to Stage 5, the highest level of the COVID-19 risk-based guidelines.
“Right now we need everyone to redouble their commitment to wearing masks even if you’ve been vaccinated, even if you’ve been boosted,” said Adrienne Sturrup, the interim director of Austin Public Health.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler further called it “critical” for people to wear a mask when in public, whether they’re indoors or outdoors.
“Every additional layer of protection we take for ourselves goes a long way in helping our business community, our hospital system and all of Austin,” Adler said. “Neighbors, we are in a new stage of this virus that presents new challenges, and it requires a little more diligence for just a little bit longer.”
The latest push to mask even applies to people who are fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 as well as those who have recovered from a recent infection, Dr. Radha Mahale said Thursday.
“We’re seeing a lot of breakthrough cases, because our immunity from the vaccines is partial to this new variant,” said Dr. Mahale, who’s a family doctor at Baylor Scott & White Health. “It is helping us not be so sick, but it is not completely preventing disease.”
What she would like people who got the COVID-19 vaccines and the booster to understand is they are still capable of passing on the virus to others even though their shots may make their own cases mild or symptom-free.
“If you had the infection, and you’ve been vaccinated, you’ve got a lot of antibodies circulating in your system,” Dr. Mahale explained. “That does not make you immune, and it doesn’t make you unable to pass the virus, so please still mask.”
She further stated circulation of the omicron variant in particular makes it even more important for people to wear their masks.
“It is shown that omicron is mostly in the nasal passages and not so much in the lower respiratory system, so that’s why it’s so transmissible,” Dr. Mahale said. “You need more than just a cloth mask.”
She and other doctors advise the community to upgrade their masking choices to either a disposable surgical mask or something with even more filtration, like the N95 or KN95.
“I don’t want to give people a false sense of security that just because they got their vaccine or the booster that they can’t spread the virus,” Dr. Mahale said, “so I would recommend limiting indoor activities and big gatherings inside. I would try to wear masks and stay six feet apart as best as you can.”
In addition to masking, leaders from Austin, Travis County and APH said Thursday people should once again limit their travel and try to use curbside or takeout services as much as possible to avoid prolonged indoor gatherings. They also suggested businesses should require masks for guests and staff members alike to prevent disruption of services due to illness.
“Our way of life is in danger,” Dr. Desmar Walkes, the local health authority, said Thursday. “We know that omicron is far more transmissible than the variants that have come before it, so we must act accordingly.”