Mask mandate return? HHS report wants to ‘encourage or mandate’ masking to stop long COVID

Masking and social distancing should be encouraged or even mandated once more in public in order to protect people from COVID-19 and from the possibility of suffering from “Long COVID,” according to a new report from the Department of Health and Human Services.

The report, commissioned by HHS and produced by research agency Coforma, calls for a broad range of government policies to help people who continue to deal with the lingering effects of COVID. Those policies include an awareness campaign, funding for long COVID support groups, financial support for students and workers, and new health benefits for COVID victims.

Reinstating a mask mandate may be the most controversial recommendation in the report, which says ending that mandate in late 2021 and 2022 is making it harder for people with long COVID.

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Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine supports a new HHS report that says mask mandates would help people avoid long COVID.

Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine supports a new HHS report that says mask mandates would help people avoid long COVID. (Tom Brenner-Pool/Getty Images)

“The lifting of mask mandates and indifferent attitude toward masking and social distancing typical in many public and private places further isolates people with Long COVID,” the report said. As a result, policymakers should “encourage or mandate policies and protocols regarding masking and social distancing in public spaces,” it said.

President Biden said in September that the “pandemic is over,” but his administration has not let up on the need for funding and policies to keep fighting the virus. Last week, the White House asked Congress for another $10 billion to fight COVID, and a top HHS official said assisting people with long COVID is a long-term priority for the government.

“Listening to and learning from the experiences of long COVID patients is essential to accelerating understanding and breakthroughs,” said Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health. Levine said the new HHS report is “evidence of our commitment to engaging communities to provide patient-led solutions.”

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President Biden has called for new COVID funding even though he said the pandemic is "over."

President Biden has called for new COVID funding even though he said the pandemic is “over.” (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Outside new mask requirements, the report outlined several new ideas that have the potential to become new funding priorities for the Biden administration.

It calls for expanded mental and behavioral health care for people with long COVID, their caregivers and support groups. It pushes for revised federal and state policies to make sure companies and schools provide needed support for those with long COVID, including guidelines on how to accommodate them.

It also calls for “vaccine promotion as a preventative measure for Long COVID.”

Job-searching and retraining programs are suggested, along with financial assistance to college students such as boarding subsidies, “loan forgiveness for graduates” and expanding the Work Opportunity Tax Credit to encourage companies to hire people with long COVID.

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HHS, led by Secretrary Xavier Becerra, says encouraging or even mandating masks in certain public spaces would help people avoid long COVID.

HHS, led by Secretrary Xavier Becerra, says encouraging or even mandating masks in certain public spaces would help people avoid long COVID. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Benefits for health care workers that should be considered include expanded disability leave and Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, the report said.

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The report also calls for an effort to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to get them to commit funding for long COVID advocacy groups, and says “diversity, equity and inclusion-related outreach funding” is needed to ensure research money helps “underresourced and underrepresented communities.”

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