Need a mask outdoors? It depends, NM doctors say

University of New Mexico students and fans cheer on the Lobos last week as they play their first home football game in 642 days, beating Houston Baptist 24-17 at University Stadium. The state Department of Health doesn’t require masks outdoors, but officials say some people should consider them. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With the return of the State Fair and college football, top health officials say New Mexicans are free to make their own decisions about wearing a mask in outdoor crowds.

But physicians for the state departments of Health and Human Services say wearing one may be appropriate for people who want to minimize their COVID-19 risk or who live or work with particularly vulnerable people.

Acting Health Secretary David Scrase, for his part, said he would probably wear an N95 mask and wrap-around eye protection if he went to a crowded outdoor football game.

His overriding concern, he said, isn’t his own safety, but protecting the health of his elderly patients and others he comes into contact with.

Scrase doesn’t wear a mask during early-morning walks with his wife.

“Personally, I think, with delta, there is increased infectiousness of that variant, so if I’m going to be outdoors in a crowd myself, I’ll wear a mask,” Scrase said this week in a public briefing.

For indoor public places, New Mexico last month reinstated a mask mandate that applies regardless of a person’s vaccination status.

Masks aren’t required outdoors, though they’re suggested in some circumstances.

The U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention urges people in areas of high community transmission to “consider wearing a mask in crowded outdoor settings and for activities with close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated.”

All of New Mexico – except for De Baca, Harding and Los Alamos counties – is classified as high transmission, according to the CDC.

State Epidemiologist Christine Ross, a physician, suggests people take into account their own level of risk. Older adults and people with complex medical problems, she said, should be the most careful.

“I think those folks need to be very cautious right now given the high levels of community transmission,” Ross said.

Douglas Ziedonis, CEO of the University of New Mexico Health System, said mask wearing shouldn’t necessarily be limited to indoor settings.

“When outdoors,” he said in a message to colleagues this week, “we encourage you to continue to wear a mask and socially distance.”

The vaccines against COVID-19 provide powerful protection against infection, hospitalization and death, state health official say, but there are some breakthrough cases.

People who aren’t fully vaccinated make up less than half of New Mexico’s population, but they comprise 82% of new cases, 90% of hospitalizations and 92% of deaths in recent weeks.

Among adults 18 and over, about 68.7% of New Mexicans have completed their vaccine series. About 50.3% of residents 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated.

None of the COVID-19 vaccines has been approved for younger children yet.

At the State Fair, vaccination is required for individuals 12 and over, with certain exceptions. Masks are required indoors and recommended in crowded areas outdoors.

At UNM football games, masks are recommended, but not required.

New Mexico has endured a late-summer surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the delta variant, though health officials said earlier this week that they were seeing signs of a plateau in new infections.

As for whether the surge should prompt people to wear masks outdoors, the top physicians in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration said “it depends.”

Scrase, as a geriatrician, said his top concern is to not spread the virus to patients 75 and older, and vulnerable family members.

“I’m mainly concerned about me not getting something that I then spread to others,” he said of wearing a mask outdoors.

As for advice for the public, “I think it depends,” Scrase.

Deputy Health Secretary Laura Parajón said people might consider wearing a mask outdoors if they have unvaccinated children or others at risk in their household.

Ross, the epidemiologist, said there’s no hard and fast rule.

“If you’re outside exercising alone,” she said, “I do not think there’s a need to wear a mask. If you’re in a densely crowded outdoor event, that calculus changes.”

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