About 67,000 people are currently hospitalized nationwide for the virus, and over 1.2 million people have become newly infected with the coronavirus since Nov. 1.
Republican governors of over a dozen states said this week that they will refuse to implement a statewide mask mandate. That comes as their states have shattered records for new cases of COVID-19 and COVID-related hospitalizations in the last two weeks.
As of Friday, Republican governors from Florida, Alaska, Arizona, South Dakota, Missouri, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Georgia, South Carolina, Iowa, Nebraska, Idaho, and Wyoming have not issued statewide mask mandates despite witnessing a sharp surge in average daily new cases since early November.
About 67,000 people are currently hospitalized nationwide for the virus, according to the COVID Tracking Project, and since Nov. 1 over 1.2 million people have become newly infected with the coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19 are five times more likely to die than if they are hospitalized with the flu.
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In Arizona, Gov, Doug Ducey has repeatedly rebuffed calls for a statewide mask mandate. After weeks of pushback, he finally gave municipalities the authority to create local mask-wearing requirements on June 17.
After ending the state’s stay-at-home order in early May, a time some experts said was too soon, he has committed to avoiding a second one even as the spread becomes worse. “Arizona’s economy is open, Arizona’s educational institutions are open, Arizona’s tourism institutions are open,” he said at a press conference last month. “The expectation is that they are going to remain open.”
In North Dakota—where the governor has so far not issued a mask mandate despite pleas from healthcare professionals—hospitals have reached 100% patient capacity. Administrators are now implementing risky shortage and short-staffing solutions—like allowing infected healthcare professionals to work if they are asymptomatic—to keep up with the surge. Oklahoma hospitals have run out of ICU beds, which are needed to treat patients with severe COVID symptoms.
Despite reminders from the CDC and other public health experts that wearing a mask can effectively curb transmission rates. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts believe that freedom should take precedence over public health despite their states surpassing an average of 2,000 new COVID-19 cases daily and dire shortages debilitating their overburdened hospitals.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem echoes similar sentiments, stating she will let her constituents exercise “personal responsibility” with the virus.
“Governor Noem has provided her people with the full scope of the science, facts, and data regarding the virus, and then she has trusted them to exercise their personal responsibility to make the best decisions for themselves and their loved-ones,” Noem spokesperson Ian Fury told POLITICO. “She will not be changing that approach.”
The positivity rate in South Dakota is now 55% of all tests.
Opposition to statewide mandates highlights the troubling politicization of face masks during a pandemic that has no signs of slowing down and has already killed over 240,000 people in the country. Although many of these Republican governors were critical of the Trump administration’s lack of guidance or assistance at the start of the pandemic in March, the majority of them still stand behind the current president’s general opposition toward masks.
After witnessing their states overwhelmed with an incoming second- and third-wave of the virus, however, Republican governors Eric Holcomb of Indiana and Kay Ivey of Alabama have both required citizens wear face covering when they’re outside. In early November, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert ordered a mandate and declared a state of emergency after the BeeHive State surpassed 132,600 total cases. On Thursday, Utah reported another 3,824 new cases and 11 deaths, bringing their case count to nearly 144,000 cases and 689 deaths.
In Texas, a member of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s COVID task force said he hopes other red-state leaders cooperate with Biden and require masks. “It’s actually a good time for him to be engaging with governors on something like this,” McClellan, a former high-ranking public health official for the George W. Bush administration, told POLITICO. “He doesn’t have the authority of government yet, and this is an issue where you can’t just issue a national mask mandate and to some extent, even a state mask mandate alone. It’s got to be part of a coordinated set of steps.”
Since the start of his transition into the White House, President-elect Joe Biden has made it clear that defeating the pandemic is his first priority. He recently announced a COVID task force made up of doctors and public health experts, indicating that the incoming administration will tackle the pandemic with a science-based approach. If Republican governors continue to oppose mask mandates, Biden said he will look to work with local leaders—mayors and county officials—to implement mask-wearing orders.
“A mask is not a political statement,” Biden said in a press conference announcing his COVID task force on Monday. “But it is a good way to start pulling the country together … It’s to give something back to all of us: a normal life.”