For weeks, the highly infectious Delta coronavirus variant has dominated headlines, as it now makes up more than 80% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. That’s a rapid increase from the 50% it made up in early July.
Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask indoors in areas “of substantial or high transmission.”
Anthony Fauci, M.D., the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, is concerned by the rise of Delta. “If you want to go the extra mile of safety, even though you’re vaccinated, when you’re indoors, particularly in crowded places, you might want to consider wearing a mask,” he told CNBC last week. “This virus is clearly different than the viruses and the variants that we’ve had experience with before. It has an extraordinary capability of transmitting from person to person.”
The Delta variant, which was formerly known as B.1.617.2, was first identified in India, according to the CDC. The agency identifies Delta as a “variant of concern” because it spreads quickly and easily, may make vaccines less effective, and may reduce the effectiveness of some monoclonal antibody treatments.
The Delta variant is most concerning “in areas where not enough high-risk individuals have been vaccinated,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. He cites Springfield, MO, which is seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases in unvaccinated people, leading to stressed hospital systems.
More than 97% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., said during a recent briefing.
Even fully vaccinated people are growing nervous about the variant and its potential to spread COVID-19 now that the country is open and mask mandates are only enforced in certain locations, like on public transportation.
So, should you keep (or restart) masking up to protect yourself from the Delta variant, even if you’re vaccinated? We asked infectious disease experts for their input.
Should you wear a face mask to prevent a Delta variant COVID-19 infection?
The Delta variant poses a much larger threat to those who are not fully vaccinated, but it’s concerning for everyone, as the country is far from reaching herd immunity.
If you are not vaccinated, you should continue wearing a mask in public indoor settings, the CDC says, and you should consider wearing one in crowded outdoor settings and when in close contact with others.
Fully vaccinated people in areas with high transmission rates should also strongly consider wearing masks in indoor public settings, the CDC recommends as of late July, “to maximize protection from the Delta variant and prevent possibly spreading it to others.”
Right now, we’re facing a “perfect storm” of COVID-19, says Joseph Khabbaza, M.D., a critical care specialist and pulmonary care expert at Cleveland Clinic. Delta is highly infectious, early-pandemic restrictions like masking and social distancing have all but disappeared, and a large portion of the country’s population (just under half of all Americans) is still unvaccinated.
Face masks cannot stop the pandemic on their own, but they are a crucial part of protecting both ourselves and others from infection, Dr. Khabbaza explains. The less SARS-CoV-2 spreads, the less ability it has to mutate and produce variants like Delta. If you can couple mask-wearing with other precautions, like social distancing in high-risk situations, that’s even better, Dr. Adalja says.
If you are fully vaccinated, Dr. Adalja says that you should still feel protected against the Delta variant. Remember: Even if you do happen to get COVID-19 as a vaccinated person, the job of the vaccine is to prevent a serious illness and keep you out of the hospital.
That said, it never hurts to mask up in public places if you want to be more cautious. “I prefer to avoid exposure to the virus so I do not need to depend on my vaccine, so I wear a mask in crowds or during times of potential exposure,” says David Cennimo, M.D., an associate professor of medicine, adult and pediatric infectious diseases, at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “I do believe it is safer to wear a mask in crowds—times when you cannot maintain adequate distance—because I do not want to chance getting infected.”
It all comes down to your personal risk tolerance, Dr. Khabbaza explains. If you have the option to forgo a mask and you feel comfortable doing so—especially if you’re aware of local COVID-19 transmission rates—the decision is your own. But if you want to protect yourself in risky situations, wearing a mask is the safest choice.
Bottom line: Masking is still a personal decision, but could help curb Delta’s spread.
Catching the Delta variant as an unvaccinated person could be very dangerous, as you have no antibody protection to fight off the virus. It’s also important to remember that there are some people who have compromised immune systems or have not had the chance to be vaccinated yet, like young children, and they rely on everyone around them to keep them safe from rapid spread.
“While healthy people who are vaccinated are less likely to be infected and much less likely to become seriously ill, why take the risk?” Dr. Cennimo asks. “And why risk passing infection on to others, which is less likely after the vaccine, but not proven to be impossible?”
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