In early March, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order fully lifting the state’s mask mandate and reopening all businesses and facilities to 100% capacity. Following the executive order, President Joe Biden weighed in on the decision, telling reporters, “I think it’s a big mistake.”
Over a month later, several people on social media are claiming that wearing masks is unnecessary after the COVID-19 case numbers appear to have dropped in Texas after Abbott’s order went into effect.
After Texas lifted its mask mandate, did cases of COVID-19 really decline?
Chris Van Deusen: Director of Media Relations, Texas Department of Health and Human Services
Marilyn M. Felkner: Clinical Assistant Professor at The School of Human Ecology, The University of Texas at Austin
Yes, the number of COVID-19 cases in Texas has fallen slightly since the state’s mask mandate was lifted. But experts say vaccinations have played a big role in that decline, not the lifting of the mask mandate.
WHAT WE FOUND
In his March 2, 2021, announcement, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott stated that, “With the medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs, Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus.”
Abbott said that while COVID-19 has not disappeared in Texas, the state requirement on wearing masks would be dropped and the decision to wear them would be left in the hands of Texas residents and business owners.
“Today’s announcement does not abandon safe practices that Texans have mastered over the past year," said Abbott. "Instead, it is a reminder that each person has a role to play in their own personal safety and the safety of others. With this executive order, we are ensuring that all businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny."
Data released by the Texas Department of State Health Services shows that from the day after Abbott lifted the state’s mask mandate to April 21, COVID-19 case numbers in the state dropped and have since plateaued, which state health officials largely attribute to the number of people receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
“The new cases have fallen since that point [March 10] and they’ve really been pretty stable over the last week or two," said Chris Van Deusen, director of media relations for Texas Department of Health and Human Services. "It looked for a little bit like they were starting to tick up, but this week it’s been down a little bit, so time will tell. It seems like the vaccination effort is really taking effect and helping us keep those cases low."
Van Deusen made it clear that Abbott, and many Texas residents, have not totally stopped wearing masks and many businesses still have mask requirements in place.
“I think the governor was pretty clear in his announcement that he still wanted people to wear masks, that he’d still be wearing a mask, but it was certainly up to people to take that personal responsibility and take that personal action to continue to take precautions," said Van Deusen. "It wasn’t something that the state was going to require them to do. I think by and large that’s still happening. I don’t think we’ve stopped wearing masks altogether."
Marilyn M. Felkner, a clinical assistant professor in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Texas at Austin, confirmed Abbott and Van Deusen’s comments, saying that removing the mask mandates “didn’t remove people’s choice” to continue wearing masks in the state. Meanwhile, she said that “vaccination definitely is playing roles in dramatic drops [of COVID-19] in long-term care facilities.”
COVID-19 vaccine data collected by the Texas Department of State Health Services shows that as of April 25, around 47% of the population ages 16 and older in Texas have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and about 32% are fully vaccinated.
Felkner says that the state’s COVID-19 case numbers should continue to go down as long as people keep getting vaccinated.
“Right now, we’re at the same place as last September and October, still well above a year ago," she said. "It hasn’t zeroed out. If we can keep vaccinating, it should continue to go down. Summer should be better."
Meanwhile, Van Deusen says the state health department is continuing to recommend that residents wear masks and social distance.
“As we continue to vaccinate people, that is still one of the ways to help limit the spread of COVID-19. So, when you’re out of the house, around people you don’t live with, wear that mask, keep that six feet of distance when you can, and that’s really going to help us as more people get vaccinated,” said Van Deusen.