Fauci warns against ‘prematurely’ dropping mask rules amid COVID-19 spike

Following a move to drop mask mandates in most indoor spaces in Washington, D.C., Dr. Anthony Fauci warned that "prematurely" dropping rules for face coverings could add "an extra degree of risk" amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases in many areas across the country. 

Speaking on NPR’s "Morning Edition," Fauci urged officials to take every precaution necessary due to fears of a potential winter spike ahead. 

"When you have a dynamic like that... you really gotta be careful," Fauci said. "Masks are not going to be forever for sure. The more people that get vaccinated, the more people that get boosted, the lower the level of infection in the community will be, and then you start thinking about pulling back on masks."

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"But you don’t want to do it prematurely," he added. "As much as you’d like to do it, you’ve got to be careful."

Last week, Fauci said COVID-19 is not yet at the level of being reduced to an endemic illness, despite increased efforts to vaccinate the population. 

Speaking at a White House briefing on Nov. 17, Fauci said he doesn’t believe COVID-19 will ultimately be eradicated, but he feels confident that vaccination is the best tool to eliminate the disease from a particular region.

"We’ve eliminated diseases by vaccination, like polio in the United States, as it exists other places. We’ve eliminated measles in the United States; it exists other places. We’ve eliminated malaria years and years ago, but it exists in other places," Fauci said. 

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Fauci added that while it won’t be anytime soon when COVID-19 completely disappears from the world, the goal is to reduce its spread to a level where it does not dominate normal life.

"So, I don’t think we’re going to eliminate it completely. We want control. And I think the confusion is: At what level of control are you going to accept it in its endemicity? And as far as we’re concerned, we don’t know really what that number is, but we will know it when we get there," Fauci said.

Fauci added that vaccination rates have helped, but the U.S. daily case and death rate is still far too high for the country to be anywhere near endemic status.

"It certainly is far, far lower than 80,000 new infections per day, and it’s far, far lower than 1,000 deaths per day and tens of thousands of hospitalizations," Fauci added.

Now that it has been more than six months for many people who got a COVID-19 vaccine when shots were made available widely, Fauci is calling on everyone to get a booster ahead of the holiday season as more research has surfaced showing the waning protection of initial doses. 

Speaking in an interview last week with NBC News, Fauci expressed concern over the number of fully vaccinated individuals who have not received a booster shot and have been hospitalized. 

"What we’re starting to see now is an uptick in hospitalizations among people who’ve been vaccinated but not boosted," Fauci said Tuesday. "It’s a significant proportion, but not the majority by any means."

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned of a decline in vaccine efficacy among the elderly.

"Although the highest risk are those people who are unvaccinated, we are seeing an increase in emergency department visits among adults 65 and older, which are now again higher than they are for younger age groups," Walensky said Wednesday at a White House COVID-19 press briefing.

Walensky pointed out that rates of COVID-19 infections between people who are vaccinated with the initial doses and those who received boosters are notable.

"The rate of disease is markedly lower for those who received their booster shot, demonstrating our boosters are working," she said. "Studies show that those who are unvaccinated continue to be more likely to be infected, more likely to be in the hospital and more likely to have severe complications from COVID-19," Walensky added.