Local health officials call for mask-wearing beyond mandate expirations

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(WJHL)- An executive order from Tennessee Governor Bill Lee allowing local governments to issue mask mandates is set to expire this Wednesday. Mask mandates in every Northeast Tennessee county would expire that day as well. Governor Lee has yet to indicate if the executive order will be extended, and county mayors would again need to sign off on their renewals. But local health experts support mask mandates continuing.

The Sullivan County Health Department’s Regional Medical Director, Dr. Stephen May, wants to extend the county’s mask mandate beyond September 30th.

“I would absolutely hope that we can continue this mask mandate,” he told News Channel 11.

But how much longer will masks be needed?

“Until we get a new strategy or methodology in place, and that means vaccines, which we’re hopefully going to be working on in the next two to three months,” said Dr. May.

There’s still no announced date for when a COVID-19 vaccine will ready. Meanwhile, evidence of mask mandate fatigue among some is on display. Multiple rallies have been held in Johnson City against the mandates, including one over the weekend.

Mandated or not, Dr. Randy Wykoff, the Dean of ETSU’s College of Public Health, believes mask-wearing will still be crucial in the pandemic.

“The public needs to be educated and encouraged to wear masks all the time when they’re out in public,” he said.

While he believes the need for regular mask-wearing will end eventually – Dr. Wykoff says with flu season coming, it makes sense to wear masks for the foreseeable future.

“We don’t know if the virus will continue to mutate and change every year the way the flu virus does, or whether it will be something that goes away as SARS did,” said Wykoff. “Nobody likes to be told ‘we don’t know’ – but we don’t know.”

Ballad Health officials confirmed Monday they have requested to the Tennessee Hospital Association that the executive order be extended.

In recent weeks, Ballad leaders have pointed to graphs showing new COVID-19 cases trending downwards since the mandate’s implementation.

“Even if the mask mandates go away, absolutely, I’m still going to be pleading with people to wear a mask,” said Jamie Swift, Ballad’s Chief Infection Prevention Officer. “If we don’t, I think we know what will happen. I feel confident that we would see our numbers go back up.”

Swift also said a vaccine won’t automatically trigger the end of calls to wear masks.

“I know a lot of people want to know when the pandemic will be over,” said said. “There is not one thing that’s going to bring this to an end. It’s the culmination of things being done together… hand hygiene, staying home when you’re sick, social distancing, wearing a mask, getting your flu shot, getting the COVID vaccine when it comes out. When all these pieces come together to really get our community to the level that it stops the spread, that’s when we’re going to see some sort of normalcy returning.”

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