Story at a glance

  • WHO doctors said that with the delta variant still in circulation, wearing masks in public is still critical.
  • The delta variant has been linked to higher rates of hospitalization.
  • Last week, several Republican senators introduced legislation to make the CDC recall its mask mandate for vaccinated Americans.

The aggressive delta COVID-19 variant is making rounds both in the U.S. and abroad, prompting new public health advice from experts at the World Health Organization (WHO).

Speaking during a meeting on June 25, officials encouraged the continued use of masks in some public settings, despite global vaccination rates rising.

Noting that studies focused on the delta variant are underway, Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious diseases specialist at the WHO, said that transmission typically occurs from close contact with infected people via aerosol particles - the same as the original COVID-19 strain.

Given the ease of airborne transmission, Van Kerkhove said that the best way to prevent a delta infection is through wearing facial masks.

"When we take measures to prevent transmission, we take measures to prevent transmission against droplet and aerosol and airborne," she said. "This is why I say know what you can do to keep yourself safe. Take those measures. Wearing that mask."

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Her advice comes as the delta variant is consistently linked to increased hospitalizations and has potential to be more contagious than its ancestral strain.

Scientists have much more to learn about the delta variant, but Van Kerkhove said that there is some evidence of delta aerosols containing higher volumes of the coronavirus than other strains. 

Other WHO officials, including Michael Ryan, the Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme, and Mariângela Simão, the Assistant Director General for Access to Medicines, Vaccines and Pharmaceuticals, echoed Van Kerkhove's stance.

"We have to reduce our own exposure, so we get exposed to less virus, which is the infectious dose, and we have to ensure we're wearing masks and doing other things to prevent us inhaling particles that will cause us to be sick," Ryan said.

Simão also noted that vaccinations alone aren't a foolproof way to halt transmission of the virus.

The U.S. may be proof of that. The CDC reports that 66.1 percent of Americans have had at least one COVID-19 vaccination, and community transmission is registering at "moderate."

However, the delta variant, also called B.1.617.2, continues to increase its share of U.S. cases, composing 9.5 percent of all U.S. COVID-19 infections - a jump from 2.8 percent reported at the end of May.

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Many states in the U.S. have since repealed previously implemented mask orders, including Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia. 

Most of the current state-level policies have caveats to their mask rollbacks, including requiring face coverings in certain indoor atmospheres, among crowds, or for some professions.

Last week, a group of several Senate Republicans, led by Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and including Susan Collins (R-Maine), Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), introduced legislation to order the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to lift the mask mandate.

"Over 150 million people in the United States are fully vaccinated and mask mandates have been lifted across the country," Cruz said. "It's long past time for President Biden and the CDC to follow the science and end this mask mandate for fully vaccinated individuals."

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Published on Jun 28, 2021