A month and a half ago, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear a mask outdoors, or in most indoor situations, to protect themselves and others against Covid-19.
The news was received with relief, but it raised concerns, too. After all, there’s yet to be conclusive evidence that vaccinated people cannot spread the virus, and the US population, though ahead of most of the world in the percentage of immunization, is still shy of herd immunity.
As it turns out, yes—it was too soon. The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed on June 25 that vaccinated people should continue to wear masks, especially as a protection against the highly contagious delta variant.
The delta variant poses a higher risk
The new Covid-19 variant is spreading fast around the world, and now accounts for 10% to 20% of new cases of the virus in the US. Vaccinated people are protected against severe cases of Covid-19, but they can still get infected. Public health experts are investigating whether booster shots of vaccines will be needed to protect the population against the new variant.
Hence, the WHO is once again highlighting the need to wear masks. “Vaccine alone won’t stop community transmission,” said Mariangela Simao, the WHO’s assistant director-general for access to medicines and health products, during a briefing last week at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva. “People need to continue to use masks consistently, be in ventilated spaces, [practice] hand hygiene, [maintain] physical distance, avoid crowding,” she said.
Masks are a partisan issue in the US
Although Covid cases in the US have been steadily declining as vaccination rates are going up, it might be reaching an impasse. Joe Biden had set a target of immunizing 70% of adult Americans by July 4, but the country will fall short of it, reaching 67% of all eligible adults. Some 20% Americans say they don’t want to get the vaccine.
Vaccine hesitancy follows party lines, with 43% Republicans saying they will reject a vaccine compared to 5% of Democrats. Americans are also split on masks; Republican party representatives are pushing the CDC to lift the mask mandate on airplanes. Nearly all cases of Covid-19 in the US are now among the unvaccinated, and clusters are more frequent in Republican counties. With the delta variant continuing to spread, the risk in areas of low vaccination rates and high mask resistance is getting much higher.
A brief history of Covid-19 mask recommendations
This latest contradiction follows over a year of inconsistent mask advice.
February 2020: Both the WHO and the CDC say there is no need for the general population to wear masks. The US surgeon general tweets: “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing the general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if health care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!” (The tweet has since been deleted).
April 2020: The CDC changes its stand, urging everyone to wear face masks outside their homes.
June 2020: The WHO recommends everyone wear a mask. People over 60 years old and frontline workers are told to wear medical-grade masks, while everyone else can wear regular masks or face coverings.
January 2021: For months, masks are the subject of controversies. Some local and state authorities impose bans, but Donald Trump refuses to establish federal guidelines. Republican party representatives consider mask recommendations as a violation of freedom. After his inauguration, Biden mandates masks in certain situations (including on public transportation), and asks all Americans to mask up for 100 days.
March-April 2021: States start lifting mask mandates. The CDC relaxed rules for mask-wearing: first, it says vaccinated people can gather in small groups unmasked; then it lifts mask requirements when outdoors.
May 2021: The CDC announces vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks indoors either, with some exceptions. State and local authorities can still impose their regulations.
June 2021: With the emergence of the delta variant, the WHO reiterates the importance of wearing masks to stop community transmission, even where people are vaccinated. So far, the CDC has not revised its stand.