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Fayetteville health board grapples with mask recommendations in light of delta variant

by Stacy Ryburn | July 15, 2021 at 7:20 a.m.
Brad Hardin (left), Fayetteville fire chief, prepares Wednesday, July 14, 2021, for a hybrid in-person and online meeting of the city's Board of Health while Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan also gets ready for the meeting. The board discussed recommendations for masking in light of the delta variant of covid-19. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Stacy Ryburn)

FAYETTEVILLE -- The city's Board of Health stopped short of asking residents to go back to wearing masks Wednesday.

Law prohibiting the state, municipalities or other public entities from requiring face masks goes into effect at the end of the month. The board considered metrics for recommending, not requiring, mask-wearing, but did not come to a conclusion.

Board Chairman Hershey Garner with Highlands Oncology said the delta variant of the covid-19 disease is quickly spreading in the region. He said he would be comfortable with saying people ought to mask up until the variant is under control.

"What we don't know is that a vaccinated person can't transmit the delta variant to an unvaccinated person," Garner said.

Board member Huda Sharaf, director of the Pat Walker Health Center at the University of Arkansas, warned that message approaches a fine line. The vaccines protect people against the variant, and the best way for an unvaccinated person to prevent the spread and mutation of covid-19 is to get the shot, she said. Nearly all patients receiving hospital treatment for covid-19 are unvaccinated.

"My big fear is that after the delta variant, are we going to get another variant? And how much more dangerous is that variant going to be?" Sharaf said.

Marti Sharkey, the city's public health officer, said historically she's seen that when Washington County hits 300 active cases the spread becomes exponential. The county had 513 active cases Wednesday, according to Arkansas Department of Health data. Benton County had 600.

"We thought we were vaccinated enough to have a gentle wave," she said. "It appears that changed over the weekend."

Masking for vaccinated people comes down to a comfort level, Sharkey said. Wearing a mask is never a bad choice, she said.

"In a crowded situation, if you're vaccinated, with this delta variant going around, I think you should be wearing a mask," said Sharkey, who is not a member of the board.

The board will take up the discussion again at its next meeting July 28.

About 40% of 432,007 residents 12 and older in Washington and Benton counties are fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health. Another 8% or so are partially immunized.

So far, covid-19 has killed 789 people in the two counties.

Anyone, regardless of age, who is not vaccinated should wear a mask in public until fully immunized, Sharkey said. That includes children younger than 12 years old who are not yet eligible to receive the two-dose Pfizer vaccine, she said.

Sharkey said there are plans to discuss messaging and safety protocols with Fayetteville Public Schools before the fall semester begins. Schools in the city have kept vaccination clinics open during summer for those 12 and older.

Mayor Lioneld Jordan said he asked City Attorney Kit Williams about reinstating a mask mandate at city-owned buildings. Williams advised state law will not allow public institutions to have such a requirement. Only private businesses can choose to require masks inside, he said.

Right now, signs are posted on city buildings asking, but not requiring, unvaccinated visitors to wear a mask.

"We need to figure out if there's a way we, as a community, can respond with the statewide shackles we've got on us," Garner said.

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