Delta variant ignites new mask debate
Health officials are grappling with how to prevent potential COVID-19 outbreaks from the delta variant that is spreading rapidly across the U.S.
Concern over the highly transmissible delta strain prompted Los Angeles County this week to recommend that all people wear masks indoors, even if they’re vaccinated. The World Health Organization (WHO) has also encouraged fully vaccinated people to continue using masks.
But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not signaled any plans to revise its mask guidance, with Biden administration officials and some experts say that fully vaccinated Americans are safe from all existing COVID-19 variants.
“If you have been vaccinated, the message we’re conveying is you’re safe,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday. “Vaccines are effective, and that is something we want to be very clear with the public about.”
Still, the move by officials in Los Angeles County raises the prospect that mask recommendations and even mandates could make a return to certain parts of the country.
The CDC projected the delta variant made up more than a quarter of cases in the U.S. in the most recent two-week period, ending June 19 — a jump from 10 percent the previous two weeks.
Los Angeles County issued a statement Monday saying it “strongly recommends” all people wear masks in indoor settings where they don’t know everyone’s vaccination status.
Barbara Ferrer, director of the county’s Department of Public Health, told The Hill that officials want to take time to get more people vaccinated as research is conducted on delta variant transmission from the fully vaccinated.
“While we’re doing that work with building confidence, we’re going to go ahead and offer as much protection as possible for everyone,” she said.
Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, praised the county’s decision as the “right move,” saying she hopes other jurisdictions follow suit to protect both vaccinated and unvaccinated residents.
“People who are fully vaccinated are still at risk, albeit a low risk, from those who are unvaccinated,” Wen said.
“Fully vaccinated people can be around others who are fully vaccinated without any limitations,” she added. “However, if they’re going to be around unvaccinated people or vaccination status is not being checked, then those could be high-risk settings” where masks should be worn.
For now, Los Angeles County is an outlier as cities and states continue to loosen mask requirements. Washington’s King County, home to Seattle, and Pennsylvania were the latest jurisdictions to end their mandates, taking that step this week.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told NBC’s “Today” on Wednesday that the agency’s guidance that fully vaccinated people don’t need masks in most settings has not changed. She said the WHO has given conflicting instructions, saying the international organization is focused on the global community, which has a lower vaccination rate than the U.S.
“We have always said that local policymakers need to make policies for their local environment,” Walensky said. “But those masking policies are not to protect the vaccinated, they’re to protect the unvaccinated.”
So far, the delta strain has not led to any changes in masking policies at the White House or the Capitol.
The White House does not require masks if a person is vaccinated, although the administration is not checking to see whether all maskless people have gotten their COVID-19 shots.
In recent weeks, the House has ended its universal mask requirement, and few people in the Capitol continue to wear them. The overwhelming majority of lawmakers in both parties have shed masks and freely gather in large groups on the House floor.
The Senate, which never had a mask requirement since nearly all senators voluntarily wore facial coverings when it was recommended, has also relaxed its pandemic restrictions.
But the delta variant threat is influencing other activities in the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced this week that proxy voting would be extended through Aug. 17, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that was due to the global spread of the delta variant.
“As we know, there are some countries in the world that are seeing a virulent resurgence of this new variant of the COVID-19. Israel is a perfect example of that,” Hoyer told reporters, referring to Israel reimposing its indoor mask mandate despite having one of the world’s highest vaccination rates. “But even in Israel, where they have the vaccine available, they’re seeing a resurgence.”
“So, the Speaker correctly, along with the medical advice that she’s gotten, determined that there was still justification for staying on guard,” Hoyer said.
Recent studies have found that COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the strain. Both doses of Pfizer-BioNTech were found to be 88 percent effective against symptomatic disease.
There is “less data” on how Johnson & Johnson performs, Walensky said Wednesday, but “right now we have no information to suggest that you need a second shot after J&J, even with the delta variant.”
Jen Kates, senior vice president and director of global health & HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said research shows the CDC guidance “still stands,” although she acknowledged the agency needs to be prepared to adjust.
Kates expressed concern that the resurgence of the mask debate could affect the vaccination effort, noting the variant is spreading mostly among unvaccinated people.
“The worst outcome, I think, is that people choose not to get vaccinated because they think the vaccines aren’t as effective against variants,” she said.
As most Americans have gotten vaccinated, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have declined significantly. But the U.S. is expected to fall short of President Biden’s goal to have 70 percent of adults receiving at least one vaccine dose by the Fourth of July.
The White House still plans to move forward with Independence Day festivities. The administration sent 1,000 invitations for people to gather at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on Sunday, with vaccinated people allowed to go without masks. All guests were instructed to get tested one to three days before arriving.
“We certainly feel comfortable and confident moving forward with our event here at the White House and individuals having barbecues in their backgrounds this week to celebrate the Fourth of July,” Psaki said on Wednesday.
Morgan Chalfant contributed.