Delta spurs debate on masks
This was supposed to be the United States’ great maskless summer. But along with many other parts of the world, we may be inching back toward indoor mask-wearing because of the rapid spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.
Last week, the World Health Organization, worried by a global surge in cases, reiterated its recommendation that everyone — including vaccinated people — wear masks, putting it at odds with the C.D.C. On Monday, health officials in Los Angeles County followed suit, recommending that “everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks indoors in public places as a precautionary measure.”
Today, the director of the C.D.C. stood by advice that fully vaccinated Americans do not need to wear masks in most situations. Health officials in Chicago and New York said they had no plans to rethink their requirements.
How should we regard these conflicting recommendations?
The case for masks: The W.H.O.’s rationale for continuing to wear masks indoors is that while immunization is highly effective at preventing severe illness and death, the degree to which vaccines prevent mild or asymptomatic infections is unknown. (Officials at the C.D.C. disagree, saying the risk is minimal.)
The W.H.O. is also making recommendations for the entire world, where a vast majority of people are unvaccinated. Most countries are still struggling to gain access to vaccines.
Hot spots: We should continue wearing masks, some experts argue, because even countries with relatively high vaccination rates have seen increases in infections driven by the Delta variant. Britain is grappling with a sharp rise in infections because of the variant, and even Israel, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, has seen hundreds of new cases in recent days, including among people who received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
Mutations: We also know that the Delta variant contains mutations that may help it partly dodge the immune system. Several studies have shown that current vaccines are slightly less effective against the Delta variant than against most other variants, although the variant’s ability to infect vaccinated people is very limited. For those people who are only partially vaccinated, however, protection against the variant is significantly reduced, compared with other forms of the virus.
Inequalities: In Los Angeles, the county decided to reissue its indoor mask recommendation because of upticks in infections and because of its persistently high numbers of unvaccinated residents — particularly children, Black and Latino residents and essential workers. The county’s public health director told The Times that the goal of the policy was to keep community transmission low.
The argument for going without masks: Last month, when C.D.C. officials lifted mask recommendations, they cited research showing that fully vaccinated people were unlikely to become infected with the virus or have asymptomatic infections, which would make it unlikely for a vaccinated person to pass on the virus to others.
Coronavirus infections in the U.S. have been plunging for months, as have hospitalizations and deaths.
However, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the C.D.C., said today that there were instances when local authorities might impose more stringent masking measures to protect the unvaccinated. “We are still seeing uptick of cases in areas of low vaccination, and in that situation we are suggesting that policies be made at the local level,” she said.
Still, given previous mask missteps by the C.D.C. during the pandemic, reversing the agency’s guidance yet again may be difficult.
“It’s difficult to walk that back,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist and professor at the George Washington School of Public Health. Yet with the rise of the Delta variant, he said, it is also “extremely dangerous to continue the cultural norm of no one wearing a mask.”
More on Delta:
The Times’s Tara Parker-Pope answered questions about the Delta variant, breakthrough infections and when you should wear a mask.
Putin’s vaccine conversion
As Russia scrambles to contain a new wave, President Vladimir Putin urged his citizens to be vaccinated after months of downplaying the virus.
Putin spent the opening half-hour of his annual televised call-in show trying to persuade Russians to get one of the homegrown vaccines.
“It’s dangerous, dangerous to your life,” Putin said of Covid-19. “The vaccine is not dangerous.”
For months, Russian officials did little to push a vaccine-wary public to be immunized. They are now changing their approach, but a widespread distrust of the authorities has stalled the campaign.
Some 23 million Russians, or about 15 percent of the population, have received at least one vaccine dose, Putin said. Recent independent polls showed that some 60 percent of Russians did not want to be vaccinated, even though the domestically produced Sputnik V shot is widely seen as safe and effective.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said on CNN that there could soon be “two Americas,” noting that areas where fewer people are fully vaccinated are at far higher risk of outbreaks.
Australian officials are divided over a decision to make the AstraZeneca vaccine available to people under 40.
Health officials say an outbreak at a summer camp in Illinois is a reminder of the risks that young people face by not being vaccinated, ABC reports.
On their way out of pharmacies, newly vaccinated readers in the U.S. bought tennis balls, alcohol and gifts for the people administering injections. Check out some of their post-shot impulse buys.
What else we’re following
What you’re doing
My husband and I went to the movies for the first time since 2020. Masked up, vaccinated, socially distanced in the theater, we saw “A Quiet Place 2.” Turns out a dystopian horror movie matinee is a great way to get back into the world.
— Ann Laabs, Milwaukee
Let us know how you’re dealing with the pandemic. Send us a response here, and we may feature it in an upcoming newsletter.