This week, federal officials issued dire warnings of a potential fourth wave of coronavirus cases and deaths if Americans let their guards down. President Joe Biden urged governors to maintain or reinstate mask mandates to ward off a surge.
But that guidance will likely be ignored across much of the Mountain West. Wyoming and Montana's statewide mask mandates have already been lifted and the governors of those states are resisting calls to reinstate them. Utah's governor is moving forward with plans to rescind the state's mandate on April 10. State leaders in Idaho never put a statewide mandate in place to begin with. And every Mountain West state has rolled back restrictions on business operations to some degree.
Glen Mays, a professor of Health Systems, Management and Policy at the Colorado School of Public Health, said some easing of restrictions was in response to a late-winter dip in new coronavirus cases.
"Over the last several weeks that progress plateaued, and now we're moving back in the wrong direction again," Mays said. "Nationally, we're back to seeing increases in cases and increases in hospitalizations. That's definitely concerning."
Mays said the lack of restrictions, combined with the recent increase in vaccinations, could be conveying a false sense that it's safe to resume life as normal, and that the emergence of more contagious coronavirus variants could also be driving the increase in cases.
"We still have strong evidence that mask wearing works and that social distancing works. Those continue to be our best defenses against this virus as we're rolling out the strong protection of vaccination," Mays said. "We all need to do everything we can that helps us individuals and collectively comply with those protections."
Tribal nations in our region have continued to take precautions despite high rates of vaccination. More than half of eligible patients in the Indian Health Service's Navajo service area are fully vaccinated. Still, the Navajo Nation remains closed to visitors and under a "safer-at-home" order that includes a nightly curfew and restrictions on in-person gatherings.
On Tuesday, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez urged continued caution after announcing that a fully vaccinated tribal citizen had tested positive for the U.K. variant of the coronavirus.
"We just want to let everybody know to not let up," Nez said. "Wear your mask, wash your hands, social distance and stay home as much as you can."
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region.