Jul 1, 2021 - Health

Delta variant threatens masking guidance

Illustration of a mask with an animated "no smoking" symbol over it, with the crossbar extending to different lengths, but never getting all the way across.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Growing nervousness about the Delta variant of COVID-19 is causing some places to consider reinstating mask recommendations. But with conflicting guidance from top health agencies, it's got the potential to create new confusion around masking.

Driving the news: Days after the World Health Organization recommended vaccinated people should still wear their masks to slow the spread of the Delta variant, the CDC reiterated its own guidance allowing individuals to unmask and leaving masking rules to states and counties to decide.

Be smart: Vaccinated Americans have been deemed safe from variants so far including the Delta variant, which has unvaccinated people twice as likely to be hospitalized if infected.

Reality check: Despite the return of some normalcy ahead of the holiday weekend, half of the U.S. is still not fully vaccinated, fueling a looming possibility of a resurgence of COVID cases.

State of play: The unvaccinated, including children too young to get vaccinated, and the immunocompromised would primarily benefit from a reinstated mask mandate.

What they're saying: Though a difficult decision, "masks are not the most burdensome" compared to shutting down parts of schools and businesses to curb the spread, said David Dowdy, associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

  • "As much as we all want the pandemic to be over and done with forever, it’s not," he added.

The big picture: Despite falling short of a nationwide goal of 70% of Americans with one shot by July 4, the U.S. is still largely ahead of the world in immunization coverage. Many countries are still below 10% and community transmission is still ongoing in large numbers.

  • Still, the amount of COVID-19 vaccine doses distributed in the U.S. continues to fall and 29 states won’t reach the 70% mark until 2022 or beyond based on vaccination rates from the past two weeks, per an analysis from APM Research Lab.

What to watch: Voluntary and mandatory guidance for masks and capacity limits from businesses and local jurisdictions may return as children too young to get vaccinated go back to school, Dowdy said.

Go deeper