QUARTZ – 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.