One of the many pieces of marketing materials urging mask wearing at the SMU campus. Bret Redman

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The End of the Mask Mandate Won’t Delay Dallas’ Herd Immunity

But health officials are critical of the decision, which could increase community spread.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement to end the state mask mandate and open all businesses at 100 percent was met with criticism from medical experts, but it most likely won’t impact Dallas County’s path to herd immunity.

The Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation has been measuring the pandemic’s impact since the virus arrived in Dallas about a year ago. Last week it predicted that Dallas County could reach herd immunity by June, which means that 80 percent of the population will be either vaccinated or have antibodies after recovering from the infection.

Steve Miff, the CEO of PCCI, says the prediction factored in infection rate increases due to the Easter holiday and spring break, as well as the impact of new variants. That means increased spread due to the end of the mask mandate won’t have a large impact on the herd immunity timeline. “Infections might accelerate in some areas within certain demographics, but they can be balanced by the accelerated timeframe for the availability of vaccines and pace of vaccinations,” he says.

The winter storm delayed some vaccination efforts, but 36 percent of Dallas County is considered infected and recovered, while 11 percent have already received the vaccine. Given the overlap of those who have both recovered and been vaccinated, PCCI estimates that 45.5 percent of the population are now immune. Increased vaccination rates and increases in infection rates would keep moving Dallas toward reaching herd immunity, but more infections will result in more COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths along the way. “If anything, we might get to [herd immunity] levels faster, but getting there through more people being infected is NOT safe for anyone. We can (and should) get to [herd immunity] through vaccinations!” Miff tweeted. 

More good news came from the federal level. President Joe Biden announced that increased vaccine production means that every adult who wants a vaccine should be able to get one by the end of May. Still, the CDC is advising the public to wear masks despite the governor’s order. 

Local officials were critical of Abbott’s announcement. Dallas County Medical Director Dr. Phillip Huang told county commissioners that the end of the mandate was a premature decision and that it’s still too early to remove the mask mandate. Statewide, more than 5,000 people are still hospitalized with the disease, and the state is still adding around 5,000 new COVID-19 cases per day.

The order says that county judges in areas where COVID-19 patients make up more than 15 percent of all hospital beds can enact stricter requirements. The latest data says that COVID-19 patients occupy 10.67 percent of hospital beds Trauma Service Area E (which includes Dallas County). Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins tweeted, “You should focus on what doctors, facts, and scientists say is safe; not on what Gov. says is legal!”

The Dallas Morning News reported that two of Abbott’s medical advisors were not involved in eliminating the mask mandate and allowing businesses to open at their full occupancy levels. However, at least one advisor said he was consulted and agreed with the decision.

The order allows private businesses to require employees and customers to wear masks. Healthcare facilities and other employers will also have a stricter task in forcing the public to wear masks in their facilities. Michael Correll, a labor and employment partner at Reed Smith’s Dallas office, says companies may face resistance from their employees if they wish to continue enforcing masks while at work. “Employers will also need to rally to better support their customer-facing employees, who may now face more hostile customer reactions to ‘voluntary’ safety rules,” he said. 

DFW Hospital Council CEO Steve Love also called Abbott’s announcement “unfortunate,” and warned of increased community spread of the virus, given the effectiveness of masks and the prevalence of more contagious variants in the community. He noted that masking would help the economy recover by slowing the spread of the virus in public places.

“Through our efforts to wear masks, physical distance, and wash hands, we have decreased the infections, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19 in North Texas over the past six weeks,” he writes. “Let’s not reverse this trend. The COVID-19 virus with variants is still here, and we have not achieved herd immunity.”

The increased spread is especially worrisome for healthcare facilities, which will be forced to treat those infected, thus exposing providers along the way. The increased spread of the virus means it will have more chances to mutate into potentially more contagious or deadly variants.

“If you truly want to honor our healthcare heroes, then continue to wear a mask,” Love writes. “We ask Governor Abbott to please reconsider his decision.”

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