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Louisiana eases COVID restrictions; mask mandate remains in place

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As a COVID-19 variant continues to have a devastating impact on European nations, a number of experts say the United States must continue to adhere to coronavirus safety measures in preparation for another potential surge, CNN reports.

The news outlet notes that the B.1.1.7 variant, first spotted in the UK, is more contagious, may cause more severe disease and is rapidly infecting younger populations, said epidemiologist Michael Osterholm during a Tuesday night conversation with reporters.

Recent research indicates the strain may also be more deadly.

"If we can just hold out, if we can just get enough vaccine between now and the summer, we can actually beat this one," Osterholm said. "But... we're impatient."

The variant has already had a tragic impact on other countries.

According to CNN, in France, where health officials warned last month the variant was rapidly spreading, more than 5,000 COVID-19 patients are now in ICUs -- for the first time since last April. The news outlet also says Turkish officials reported the highest daily case counts since the pandemic's start, with most of those infections caused by the B.1.1.7 variant. In Canada, the strain has caused an increased number of infections and hospitalizations, with officials reporting rising statistics in relation to severe illnesses, including in younger patients.

Health leaders are concerned that the US could be headed in a similar direction -- as a big part of the population remains vulnerable the virus. Only around 16.1% of Americans have been fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The trajectory of the pandemic in the United States looks similar to many other countries in Europe, including Germany, Italy and France looked like just a few weeks ago," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Monday.

But experts add that the situation doesn't have to become as brutal in the U.S., they indicate the outcome of the next stage of the pandemic depends on how the government responds to its current situation. 

"In the United States it's going to be totally up to how much are we going to open," said Osterholm, who noted the US is the only country that is easing safety measures while the B.1.1.7 variant is spreading. "In a sense, we're creating the perfect storm."

That, Osterholm added, could mean more lives lost.

A number of health officials, including Walensky have encouraged Americans to continue masking up and have stressed that some states may be opening up too quickly at a critical time.

On Monday, President Joe Biden urged the nation's leaders to reinstate mask mandates, adding, "this is not politics."

A number of state leaders in the deep south don't see the need to adhere to President Biden's request. 

While Louisiana is one of the few southern states still requiring that masks be worn in public, leaders in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama have a different viewpoint on the matter.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, who lifted all county mask mandates earlier this month, addressed the issue on his Twitter account with a recent post, saying, "Let me get this straight - POTUS Biden wants Mississippi to reverse course and reinstate a mask mandate because cases are going up in New York and New Jersey." 

"No thank you, Mr. President," Reeves added.

Similarly, on Tuesday, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced he was lifting the statewide mask mandate, adding that businesses were free to require customers to wear masks.

"I've talked to a number of restaurant owners who will continue requiring masks within their restaurant for the safety of their employees and patrons," the governor said. "Please be respectful and mindful that, while the mask mandate has been lifted, many businesses will continue to require it."

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has also said she will move forward with her plan to end the state's mask mandate next week, a spokesperson for the governor told CNN this week.

"As Governor Ivey has previously stated, Alabama's mask mandate ends April 9. We have made progress, and we are moving toward personal responsibility and common sense, not endless government mandates," spokesperson Gina Maiola said.

Despite such choices on the parts of state leaders, medical experts continue to urge citizens to wear masks and practice social distancing until enough of the general population can be vaccinated and protected against the virus to suppress its spread.

CNN reports that about 96 million people have received at least one dose of a vaccine -- roughly 28.9% of the US population -- and about 53.4 million are fully vaccinated, CDC data shows.

Just under half of the country's 65 and older population -- 49.8% -- are fully vaccinated and more than seven out of 10 seniors in the US have received at least one dose, the data reveals.

The elderly and higher-risk groups were prioritized in the vaccine rollout nationwide. At this point, all 50 states have expanded -- or planning to expand -- vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and up.

Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine is the sole COVID-fighting shot available for use by individuals who are 16 and older, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are restricted to people 18 and older.

Arkansas was the latest state to announce that vaccine eligibility in the state has now expanded to anyone 16 and older.


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