Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky announced on Tuesday afternoon that mandatory use of masks in public spaces would again be recommended, as not enough Americans have been vaccinated.
“As you have heard from me previously, this pandemic continues to pose a serious threat to the health of all Americans,” Walensky told the media and explained why the CDC would reinstate the recommendation for mandatory mask use in public space, “Today, we have new science related to the Delta area that requires us to update the guidance regarding what you can do when you are fully vaccinated.”
The CDC’s decision to re-recommend the use of masks did not come without controversy. Even Florida Governor Ron DeSantis stated that the science does not support the CDC’s decision.
In May, the CDC had said that fully vaccinated people did not need to wear masks, but the decision was disputed by several epidemiologists. “Wearing masks should probably be one of the last things we stop doing,” Dartmouth University epidemiologist Anne Hoen said in an interview with the journal Nature.
The Delta variant, the reason why the CDC recommended the use of masks once again
The Delta variant, originally detected in India, is a strain of COVID-19 that has a high level of transmissibility and evidence suggests that those infected with this variant are more likely to be hospitalized.
In communities with low vaccination rates, this new variant is once again filling hospital wards and hallways. As of the date of this article, Delta has spread to more than 112 countries.
Despite the high transmissibility of the Delta variant, evidence suggests that the available COVID-19 vaccines —Pfizer, Moderna, Jansen, Cansino— retain most of their efficacy in counteracting infection or preventing severe symptoms in the event of infection. Even so, a fully vaccinated person, according to the CDC, can still transmit the virus.
Currently, the Delta variant is responsible for approximately 70% of infections in the United States. Arkansas, Nevada, Kansas, Missouri and Alaska are the states where it has been most prevalent, i.e. where a higher percentage of COVID-19 tests detect this strain of the virus. In Arkansas, up to 30% of tests have detected this variant of the coronavirus.
The spread of the Delta variant in Israel —where more than 60% of the population has been vaccinated— has caused the effectiveness of the vaccines to decrease considerably. According to the Israeli Ministry of Health, the efficacy of the vaccines in preventing infection has dropped to 64%, as has the ability to prevent symptomatic disease. However, it clarifies that the efficacy of vaccines to prevent a serious disease continues to be around 93%.
Aside from the Delta variant, Walensky warned that one of the biggest concerns is coronavirus mutations, as they have “the potential to evade our vaccine in terms of how it protects us from severe disease and death” He stressed that, to date, vaccines have proven to be effective.
The K-12 schools and facemasks problem
Possibly the measure that has generated the most controversy is the CDC’s suggestion to implement facemask use among teachers, children and adolescents in K-12 schools across the country.
It was originally thought that the infection rate among children and adolescents was lower than that of adults, but the CDC claims that the lower infection rate was initially due to children being in much more controlled and closed environments than adults, such as schools or daycare centers, and secondly, the closure of educational institutions prevented a higher incidence of infection.
Beginning in the fall of 2020, with the gradual opening of schools, the incidence of infection among children and adolescents began to rise and parallel the rate of infection among adults. According to the CDC, “studies that have systematically tested children and adolescents, irrespective of symptoms, for acute SARS-CoV-2 infection or prior infection have found their rates of infection can be comparable, and in some settings higher, than in adults.”
Compared to adults, children and adolescents infected with COVID-19 are less likely to experience symptoms, and if they do, most are mild. Despite being more likely to be asymptomatic, it has not been demonstrated that there is a lower risk of virus transmission among children and adolescents than among adults.
So far, less than 15% of the population under 18 years of age is vaccinated and the CDC has not approved vaccination for children under 12 years of age.