A statewide mandate requiring people to wear masks in indoor public settings will remain in place until at least Feb. 15, the state's Health and Human Services secretary announced Wednesday, pointing to rising COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.
The state imposed the mandate on Dec. 15, and it had been scheduled to expire on Jan. 15.
Among the indoor public spaces affected are retail stores, restaurants, theaters, family entertainment centers and government offices that serve the public.
Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly told reporters the decision to extend the mandate was the result of rising COVID case numbers, the high transmission rate of the Omicron variant of the virus and the impact of increased infections on hospitals across the state.
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Ghaly noted that overall hospitalizations in the state -- including COVID and all other patients -- had reached 51,000 as of Wednesday morning, just shy of the peak of 53,000 reached during last winter's virus surge. The current number includes about 8,000 COVID-positive patients, he said.
Ghaly said the state is working to get a better breakdown on the nature of COVID hospital patients to determine how many were admitted for other reasons and only discovered they were infected when they were tested at the hospital.
But regardless of that breakdown, the overall number of hospitalizations remains concerning, he said.
Ghaly also said residents should consider wearing higher-grade masks, not simply scarves or loose-fitting cloth face-coverings. He said many masks that people donned in the early days of the pandemic are "not as helpful today,'' urging people to consider masks that are well-fitted on the face without gaps or ventilators.