Aug 22, 2023

Are masks returning? Lionsgate, Atlanta HBCU reinstate mandates amid COVID uptick

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations tick up in the United States, multiple institutions say they are reinstating mask mandates, at least temporarily.

Morris Brown College, a historically Black college and university in Atlanta, made the announcement in a letter written to faculty, staff and students by President Dr. Kevin James and posted on Facebook.

"Over the next 14 days…all students and employees are required to wear face masks (staff may remove in their offices while alone)," the letter read.

Meanwhile, Lionsgate, the entertainment company, said certain employees at headquarters are being required to wear masks again.

"The LA County Department of Public Health is requiring Lionsgate employees on the 3rd & 5th floors of our 2700 Colorado Avenue headquarters in Santa Monica to wear masks due to a cluster of COVID cases," Peter Wilkes, chief communications officer for Lionsgate, told ABC News in an email. "It is the policy of the LA County Department of Health to require masking in workplaces that have a cluster of cases."

Additionally, several hospitals across the U.S. are reintroducing mask mandates for staff, patients and visitors, according to reports.

Even as the country heads into fall with the start of schools and cooler weather, meaning more people spending time indoors, experts say they don't currently envision a widespread return to mask mandates.

"I don't see that as something that we're likely going to be adopting ..." Dr. Albert Ko, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Yale School of Public Health told ABC News.

Last week, COVID hospitalizations rose for the fifth consecutive week, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the week ending Aug. 12, hospitalizations rose 21.6% from 10,370 new admissions to 12,612, CDC data shows. Despite the increase, it's still among the lowest hospitalizations recorded since the pandemic began.

This is similar to what's being seen on the local level, with a rise in cases recorded in Fulton County -- where Atlanta is located -- a July 2023 epidemiology report from the Fulton County Board of Health shows.

Data from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health shows COVID test positivity has increased. COVID hospitalizations also rose to 330, higher than this past summer but among the lowest numbers seen during the pandemic.

"An upswing is not a surge; it's not even a wave," Dr. Shira Doron, chief infection control officer for Tufts Medicine, told ABC News. "What we're seeing is a very gradual and small upward trajectory of cases and hospitalizations, without deaths really going along, which is great news."

Doron said percentage increases may seem scary but the raw numbers show the figures are actually quite small.

"My hospital has had between zero and three patients who have tested positive for COVID any given day since May," she said. "So, all week, it's been one. If tomorrow, there were two, you'd call that a 100% increase, which sounds so big, but…it's not appropriate to use percentage terms when you're talking about increases that start really small."

Ko and Doron both said that mask mandates in school settings and workplaces are only so effective because mandates are not widespread. Therefore, people are putting themselves in other situations where they could be infected.

"Let's say I'm a classroom and we have a mask mandate," Ko said. "I can wear that mask, but once I step out, I may get infected, right? And then I can return to the classroom, I can wear the mask, and that may prevent or reduce some of the transmission, but many people are just getting infected outside of that specific setting that the mask mandate."

The experts say there may be instances where masking is useful, such as being around people who are at high risk for severe complications, such as the elderly and the immunocompromised but -- unless an omicron-like surge occurs -- people may want to consider masking based on their own risk tolerance.

They also said to watch out for upcoming CDC recommendations about the new COVID booster targeting newer variants and to stay up to date on vaccinations.

"This is not just about being prepared for a winter surge of COVID-19. We can and should again expect SARS-CoV-2 and influenza and RSV to circulate widely in many communities," Dr. Jessica Justman, an associate professor of medicine in epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, said in a statement. "We know masks are not perfect but they are a safe, inexpensive and generally acceptable way to cut down on the risk of inadvertent transmission to others, something that is especially important in settings that provide care for immunocompromised and older individuals."