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Fayetteville health board agrees mask-wearing best practice, mandate or not

by Stacy Ryburn | December 9, 2021 at 7:21 a.m.
Chase Feltner, co-owner of Feltner Brothers, prepares food April 23, 2021, at the restaurant in Fayetteville. The city's Board of Health agreed Wednesday people should wear masks in public regardless of whether a mandate is in place. (File photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Residents should continue wearing masks in public regardless of whether the city has a mandate, the city's Board of Health agreed Wednesday.

The city's requirement for people to wear masks in most indoor public situations is set to end Dec. 23. The date coincides with the last day of the fall semester at Fayetteville Public Schools.

The board last month supported aligning the end date with the School District, but with a condition. Covid-19 hospitalizations should stay near or below 30 in the region and intensive care unit bed usage should stay below 100, according to the board's recommendations.

When the City Council voted to lift the mask mandate Nov. 16, hospitalizations and ICU bed usage hovered at those benchmarks. Since then, both numbers have risen.

Hospitals in Benton and Washington counties were caring for 55 covid-19 patients Wednesday, according to the Northwest Arkansas Council. There were 113 ICU beds in use for covid and non-covid patients.

Council members said the mandate appeared to have little effect on people's behavior and has no real enforcement mechanism. The board of physicians and health administrators said Wednesday their job is to recommend the best public health practice.

Gary Berner, chief medical officer for Community Clinic, said the city should be promoting wearing masks in public as covid hospitalizations and ICU bed use remains high.

"Perhaps our role at the Board of Health is not necessarily to worry about whether it's a mandate or how it's enforced, but what's the safest thing to recommend to the City Council," he said. "Then they can decide whether it's a mandate or whether it can be enforced."

Marti Sharkey, the city's public health officer, said she would email the council members with the latest numbers and inform them the board recommends continuing to wear masks in public.

The mandate applies to all indoor public places and city-owned buildings. The responsibility to wear a mask is on individuals, rather than businesses. There are exceptions for eating and drinking or medical conditions.

Enforcement of a mandate will only become more difficult over time, said Huda Sharaf, director of the Pat Walker Health Center at the University of Arkansas. Many employees and customers at businesses around town have already stopped wearing masks, she said.

"I know everybody's getting really tired, I know that," Sharaf said. "The virus is not getting tired, but people are getting tired."

Board members also advocated for people to wear masks to help prevent the spread of influenza. The flu nearly disappeared last season when many people were still wearing masks but is showing signs of resurgence, they said.

Residents also should not forget to get a flu shot in addition to their covid shots, the board agreed. A surge of flu may exacerbate hospitalizations, they said.

Although the omicron variant of covid-19 has not been detected in Arkansas, the state is testing about 1% of positive covid samples for the variant, Sharkey said. In other words, the variant is likely here, she said.

Delta remains the most prominent strain in the state and region. Early evidence shows omicron appears more transmissible than delta, but no more severe, Sharkey said. Two doses of the Pfizer vaccine may not be sufficient to protect against omicron, but a third dose appears to provide robust antibody levels against the new variant, she said.

"So everybody go get boosted," Sharkey said.

On Wednesday, the state Department of Health reported 51.7% of people five and older in Washington County as fully vaccinated. Another 11.3% were partially immunized. In Benton County, 50% of the same population was fully immunized, with 10.1% partially immune.

So far, covid-19 has killed 1,148 people in Benton and Washington counties.

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