As Delta variant surges, masks are back

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WASHINGTON — Masks are back. Seventy-five days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared that vaccinated people no longer needed to wear face coverings, the agency has reversed course, announcing that the rise of the Delta variant necessitates a return to masking.

“In areas with substantial and high transmission, CDC recommends fully vaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings to help prevent the spread of the Delta variant and protect others,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said on Tuesday in a press briefing.

New CDC guidance published alongside Walensky’s remarks said that until “vaccination coverage is high and community transmission is low,” masking should remain in effect. High transmission is defined by the CDC as more than 100 cases per 100,000 people. Between 50 and 99 cases per 100,000 is defined as “substantial” transmission. (Community transmission can also be calculated by the share of coronavirus diagnostic tests returning positive results.)

Masking has been politicized from the start of the pandemic, a trend that, predictably enough, continued on Tuesday. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, greeted the new guidance with two words: “Hell no.”

Elected and institutional leaders will now be faced with the complex task of potentially returning to precautions that were dispensed with weeks ago, as the nation appeared to be emerging from the pandemic.

Posters at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas last Friday informed passengers that masks should be worn. (STAR MAX/IPx via AP)
A poster at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas last Friday. (Star Max/IPx via AP)

Schooling is sure to be an especially acute area of concern, with parents already dreading the return of remote instruction. Walensky, who has been an advocate of in-person schooling since beginning her tenure at the CDC, said masking should be universal in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

The guidance could serve to reassure educators nervous about coming back into the classroom. Some conservative governors, however, have enacted measures preventing school districts from requiring masks.

The guidance for unvaccinated people remains what it has always been: to wear masks. As she has done in the past, Walensky put pressure on holdouts to get their shots, especially since they are vastly more susceptible to the coronavirus than are fully vaccinated individuals. She and other public health officials have increasingly described the current situation as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

Walensky revealed earlier this month that of all COVID-19 fatalities in June, 99.5 percent were among unvaccinated individuals. Although the Delta variant appears to be far more transmissible, it is not more deadly. “We continue to strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated,” Walensky said. “Getting vaccinated continues to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death — even with Delta.”

As of July 23, 48.9 percent of the American population was vaccinated, according to the CDC. That is not nearly high enough to stop community transmission, most epidemiologists believe, but a flurry of incentives and public campaigns have failed to prod vaccine-hesitant Americans to change their minds.

In Brooklyn, N.Y., shown here on Monday, stores still require masks. Only about 54 percent of New Yorkers are vaccinated.
In Brooklyn, N.Y., shown here on Monday, stores still require masks. Only about 54 percent of New Yorkers are vaccinated. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The numbers of people being vaccinated have fallen sharply since early April, when 3 million people were being inoculated daily. The daily figure is now fewer than 500,000 people, giving the Delta variant ample opportunity to spread, particularly in low-vaccination states. Last week, three states — Florida, Missouri and Texas — accounted for 40 percent of new cases.

Walensky acknowledged emerging research indicating that people infected with the Delta variant tend to carry, and shed, more viral particles than do people infected with other variants. Even if vaccinated people do not themselves become sick, they can still transmit the Delta variant to others. In areas of low vaccination, that could pose a substantial danger, even if such transmission from vaccinated to unvaccinated people remains fundamentally unlikely.

“This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations,” Walensky said at Tuesday’s briefing. “This weighs heavily on me,” she added later in the briefing, acknowledging that people are “tired” and “frustrated.”

The new guidance represents a setback for a nation that had been on course to return to normal. That normal now seems more distant than it did in May, when the masks came off and the coronavirus appeared to be in retreat.


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