Health officials are debating mask wearing in the wake of the Delta variant.
By Jonathan Wolfe and Amelia Nierenberg
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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.
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