'A recipe for disaster': Health care workers react to dropped mask mandates and lifted COVID-19 restrictions

"Personal freedom comes with personal responsibility," one expert said.

March 14, 2021, 10:00 AM

Health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic are warning that reopening too soon is a "recipe for disaster" after a string of states dropped mask mandates and rolled back COVID-19 restrictions.

Last week, Texas and Mississippi dropped mask mandates, sparking concern that it could lead to another surge in cases -- but experts in states that already rescinded face-covering requirements said infections still may decline if the public stays vigilant.

Dr. Natasha Kathuria, an emergency room doctor and global health specialist from Austin, Texas, said returning to normal life will endanger nurses, front-line workers and the elderly.

"We fear that opening our economy to 100%, just before spring break, is a recipe for disaster," she said, noting that young people across the country flock to the South to enjoy the warm weather in March.

A man sits at a table inside a bar as the state of Texas prepares to lift its mask mandate and reopen businesses to full capacity during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Houston, Texas, March 9, 2021.
Callaghan O'hare/Reuters

She said without a mask requirement front-line workers are "at exceptional risk for potential confrontation with patients who may be unwilling to wear a mask now that there is no mandate."

"Texas was the most aggressive state to reopen after our national lockdown, and we became the epicenter for COVID-19 a few months later," she warned. "We cannot risk that again."

Dr. Marc Boom, CEO and president of Houston Methodist Hospital, said easing restrictions too soon is "demoralizing" for front-line workers.

"It has been demoralizing for a lot of very fatigued health care professionals who see that light at the end of the tunnel but feel like the path has gotten rockier," Boom told ABC News.

He said the state should wait to achieve herd immunity before reopening and predicted it'll take 90 to 120 days to reach that threshold in Houston.

State data showed that only 12% of Texans were fully vaccinated as of Saturday, nowhere near the 70% threshold needed to reach herd immunity, per Johns Hopkins. Over 2.3 million Texans have been infected with COVID-19.

"Give us that time," Boom said. "Continue to wear masks, continue to do all the right things."

In response to Abbott's decision to reopen the state, businesses, including the grocery stores H-E-B and Kroger, said they'll still require masks for entry.

Customers dine at Picos Restaurant, as the state of Texas prepares to lift its mask mandate and reopen businesses to full capacity during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Houston, Texas, March 9, 2021.
Callaghan O'hare/Reuters

At the moment five states have dropped mask mandates: Texas, Mississippi, Iowa, Montana and North Dakota.

In nearby Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey announced the state's mask requirement will expire April 9. She said she would still wear a mask and reasoned her constituents didn't need a mandate to enforce it.

Dr. Rachael Lee, a hospital epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told ABC News the new guidelines are "concerning."

"It's very hard for us to hear people in the community say that masks don't work, that we should get rid of them," she said.

Lee said Alabama shouldn't lift the mask mandate until about 70% of the population is vaccinated. As of Friday, about 0.3% of Alabama's population had been fully vaccinated, perstate data.

"I want to remind everybody how important mask wearing is to protect the ones that you love -- and to protect yourself," Lee said.

Some states -- such as Iowa and Montana -- have been able to lift the mask mandate without a startling surge in cases.

Iowa lifted its mask mandate on Feb. 7, yet COVID-19 infections and deaths have fallen over the past three months following a peak in November into December. The cities of Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City kept mask mandates.

Dr. Ryan Dowden, assistant medical director in the emergency department at Unitypoint Health St. Luke's Hospital in Cedar Rapids, told ABC News the drop is attributable to Iowans buckling down on social distancing, hand-washing, mask use and the introduction of vaccines.

People wait in line to order at a coffee shop as the state of Texas lifts its mask mandate and allows businesses to reopen at full capacity during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Houston, Texas, March 10, 2021.
Callaghan O'hare/Reuters

"Most Iowans, even with the relaxed mandates, are still being very cautious and wearing their mask," he said.

He said the proof is in the data. Last week, his facility had just nine in-patients with COVID-19, none of whom were in the intensive care unit.

Nancy Iversen, a registered nurse and the Billings Clinic director of patient safety and infection control, told ABC News "exhausted and broken" health care workers are currently seeing a "moment of reprieve" -- even after the state's mask requirement was rescinded on Feb. 12.

"What our governor actually said is, 'Please follow public health recommendations and be personally responsible,'" Iversen said.

And the people of Montana listened. In February, the positivity rate fell below 5%, per state data.

Back in mid-November, Billings was a hotspot, with more than a quarter of all active COVID-19 cases in the state. This week, the Billings Clinic had just eight in-patients with COVID.

"There's a phrase we've tossed around -- 'personal freedom comes hand in hand with personal responsibility,'" she said. "A word that comes to mind is 'vigilance.'"

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Dr. Boom's first name.