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After weeks of steady decline, COVID-19 case numbers are headed back in the wrong direction once again. The spread of the highly contagious Delta is currently fueling a nationwide surge, with all 50 states and Washington, D.C., reporting a rise in cases and 38 seeing an increase of 50 percent or more over the past week, CNN reports. Fortunately, studies have shown that those who are fully vaccinated are still well protected against the virus. But according to one former official, there's one other factor that could determine whether or not you catch the Delta variant: wearing the right kind of face mask.
During an appearance on CBS's Face the Nation on July 18, Scott Gottlieb, MD, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), suggested that unvaccinated people in parts of the U.S. should be taking extra special precautions when it comes to selecting PPE. "Delta is so contagious that when we talk about masks, I don't think we should just talk about masks," he warned. "I think we should be talking about high-quality masks. Quality of mask is going to make a difference with a variant that spreads more aggressively like Delta does, where people are more contagious and exude more virus, and trying to get N95 masks into the hands of vulnerable individuals in places where this is really epidemic, I think is going to be important."
Gottlieb went so far as to recommend that people who have received both doses should consider wearing high-quality face coverings. "Even in cases where they're vaccinated, if they want to add another layer of protection, there are a supply of N95 masks right now. There is no shortage. There's plenty of masks available for health care workers," he said. "It could be something that we start talking about getting better quality masks into the hands of people, because I think it's going to be hard to mandate these things right now."
Other officials supported the idea of bringing back mask mandates in certain places being hit by new outbreaks. "In areas where there are low numbers of vaccinated people, where cases are rising, it's very reasonable for counties to take more mitigation measures, like the mask rules coming out of [Los Angeles]," US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, said during a July 18 appearance on ABC's This Week. "And I anticipate that will happen in other parts of the country—and that's not contradictory to the guidance the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] CDC issued."
Fortunately, research has shown that fully vaccinated people are far less likely to have a serious experience with the Delta variant. One study from the U.K. found that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine are 96 percent effective against hospitalization with the strain. "Even if you do have a breakthrough infection—which, again, happens in a very small minority of people—it's likely to be a mild or asymptomatic infection," Murthy told CNN in a separate interview later the same day.
Still, Murthy pointed out that younger children under the age of 12 who can't yet get vaccinated are still at risk. Such issues have led California to defy CDC recommendations that masks should be optional for fully vaccinated teachers and students, instead choosing to uphold its mask mandate for K-12 public schools in the coming school year, The New York Times reports.
But with research finding that the now-dominant strain causes viral loads in patients about 1,260 times higher than cases seen in the pandemic, Gottlieb warned that the continued spread of the highly contagious virus could have serious consequences. "Most people will either get vaccinated, or have been previously infected, or they will get this Delta variant. And for most people who get this Delta variant, it's going to be the most serious virus that they get in their lifetime in terms of the risk of putting them in the hospital."