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Health secretary says scientific evidence not necessary to end mask mandate

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This past Wednesday, Acting Secretary of Health, Dr. David Scrase, held the first COVID-19 update since the Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ended the indoor mask mandate during a press conference about the Legislative Session on February 17. The update focused on how to support the immunocompromised in New Mexico after the lifting of the mandate.

Lujan Grisham ended the indoor mask mandate on February 17th, weeks before its originally scheduled expiration on March 4, after extending it just three weeks prior. This happened before. In 2021 the governor lifted a mask mandate at the start of July in time for July 4th. At the time, she stated, “We stepped up. We looked out for one another. We sacrificed, and we saved lives. And now we’re all ready for a safe and fun summer.” She then reimplemented a mask mandate in August, 2021 in the face of the Delta surge.

KUNM's Jered Ebenreck spoke with Austin Fisher of Source NM about his article covering the February 23 update during which Fisher asked Dr. Scrase about the reasoning behind last week's decision.

AUSTIN FISHER:  My question is really basic, what is the scientific rationale for removing mask mandates?

DR. DAVID SCRASE: I don't know that I agree that you need scientific evidence to remove a mandate. I mean, I think the role of government is to step in when necessary in critical situations, and also to step back when you're out of that difficult period.

KUNM: So Austin, what is Dr. Scrase saying here, you don't need evidence to remove a mask mandate?

FISHER: What he's saying here is that he's getting these strongly worded emails, who have this feeling that New Mexico is in a position to hand responsibility over to school boards, families and individuals and away from the state. This is a strategy, not necessarily a public health one. But this is a strategy that has recently been widely referred to as Focused Protection, where the state gives up responsibility for public health and hands it over to individuals.

This is not something that existed prior to COVID. This Focused Protection model only really became a thing late into the pandemic. It’s based on some very libertarian think tank viewpoints. The most prominent one was in the fall of 2020. It was called The Great Barrington Declaration, this libertarian think tank that said, “Oh, well, we need to allow transmission to occur throughout the population. And then we'll reach herd immunity.”

That got a lot of pushback from across the political spectrum at the time. But now, it's been rebranded into this thing called Focused Protection. And we even have pundits and policymakers adopting the same viewpoint of, “We should just let it rip.” I'm trying to be charitable here. But it's a very fraught topic.

KUNM: Yes. And in your reporting, you reach out to Elizabeth Jacobs, who's a professor of epidemiology in the neighboring state of Arizona, also a signatory on an open letter of about 400 different public health professionals. Can you describe a little bit more of the open letter, number one, and also what Elizabeth Jacobs' take is on Dr. Scrase’s assessment of the evidence around masks?

FISHER: It essentially says that these calls to end indoor mask mandates are uninformed, and they're not following the science. They place higher risks on children; places a higher burden on immunocompromised people. These calls to end these mask mandates–they ignore the science that shows us that these mandates are effective at reducing COVID-19 transmission.

Just a basic logical response that Professor Jacobs had — she actually watched the press conference — in her view, it doesn't make any rational sense to say, “Oh, well, we're on the downslope of this wave. So let's get rid of the mask mandate.” And the logical conclusion that Professor Jacobs comes to is, “well, you're just going to increase transmission. If you do that, we're going to have another wave.”

Dr. Scrase acknowledged that he's expecting more waves to occur. So the question becomes, why do we think that a policy of, “Oh, well, you make a personal choice to mask,” that's not held up by the science [will work]? It's very clear to Professor Jacobs and to a lot of people in public health that one-way masking does not work. Even looking at Scrase’s own presentation that showed that less than half of New Mexicans have the booster shot, the idea of lifting the mask mandate with those levels of vaccination and with New Mexico hospitals still under Crisis Standards of Care with some hospitals still above 100% capacity–that worries her.

Individual responsibility is a complete failure when it comes to public health. There's no scientific evidence to support these mask mandates being rolled back.

KUNM: I appreciate your time today.

Jered Ebenreck has been involved in community radio for 30 years--from college radio in Maryland to KGNU, Boulder to WOMR, Provincetown to KUNM in 2004. Having served in a volunteer capacity for 17 years, Jered joined the KUNM Newsroom to offer Public Health reporting and analysis while pursuing a graduate program in Public Health at UNM, with an emphasis on Social Ecology. Jered, with the help of his partner, is a caregiver for his mother. Jered can be contacted via jeredebenreck@kunm.org or via Twitter @JeredEbenreck
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