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St. Louis mandate expires soon, but health director still recommends masks

Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis makes her remarks as the new Director of Health for the City of St. Louis in St. Louis on September 1, 2021. An infectious disease expert, Dr. Hlatshwayo Davis has worked on a city initiative to decrease HIV rates and on the St. Louis health board.
Bill Greenblatt
/
UPI
Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis says masks are still important, as 60% of St. Louis residents have received the COVID-19 vaccine, and only about a quarter of residents have received a booster shot.

The mask mandate St. Louis officials put in place to protect residents against the coronavirus will expire on Sunday, but the city's health director still thinks people should wear a mask indoors, even if there is no official requirement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late last week announced that most people in the United States can go maskless in indoor public spaces, including in the St. Louis region.

Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, St. Louis' health director, on Monday told the Board of Aldermen’s Health and Human Services Committee that city officials could drop mask requirements given the new CDC guidance. The federal agency now uses the number of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations to determine whether masks are necessary in an area.

But Hlatshwayo Davis said she would continue to recommend that people wear a mask indoors.

“I’ll probably have to switch from mandated to strongly recommended,” she said. “The onus there is then on the individual, and the individual families may be making different decisions based on the risk threshold in their household.”

The Board of Aldermen will need to vote on a new requirement for the city’s mask mandate to continue. If the health director recommended another mandate, a resolution would go to the full Board of Aldermen for a vote.

If the mask mandate expires, the Health Department would be willing to recommend reinstating one if case levels or hospitalizations spike again, Hlatshwayo Davis said.

Hlatshwayo Davis is still concerned the virus could make unvaccinated and immunocompromised people sick. She said 60% of city residents have gotten two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, but only one-fourth of residents have received a vaccine booster.

There are also many people in the city who live with children who are too young to get vaccinated.

“I am wading through emails from parents and immunocompromised folks who absolutely feel like they’re being left behind here,” she said. “Public health is by definition about community prevention. It’s not responsible to abolish all community protections.”

Several alderpersons said they have received similar messages from their constituents.

“This is just a situation that is mind-boggling,” said Lisa Middlebrook, D-2nd Ward. “I’m tired of the masks too, but I’m thinking beyond myself, my children and my clients and people who can’t fight for themselves.”

Local residents are also trying to make sense of the mask mandate potentially ending.

“COVID didn’t just vanish, and I’m feeling like I should isolate for the six months,” said St. Louis resident Kally Sue Coleman, who was recently diagnosed with cancer and started chemotherapy this month.

“Part of my mindset in beating this is to maintain normalcy,” she said. “The reality is I will soon be in a very high risk group. It honestly scares the hell out of me.”

St. Louis County lifted its mask mandate Monday, citing the low numbers of people testing positive for the coronavirus and fewer COVID-19 hospitalizations in the region’s health systems.

Being able to lift the mask mandate is an encouraging step, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page told reporters Wednesday.

“The end of the omicron surge is not the end of the pandemic, but it is the end — hopefully for a very long time — of hospitals being pushed to capacities,” Page said. “I would not call this getting back to normal. We can't be like we were before, with so many lives lost and so many sickened by the virus.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Lara Hamdan and Shahla Farzan contributed reporting.

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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