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As coronavirus’s delta variant surges, indecision is along for the ride (again)

A parent and a member of the “Community Patriots” confronts a police officer while protesting the wearing of masks in schools at the Pinellas County Schools Administration Building in Largo, Fla., on Aug. 9, 2021. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)
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BOISE, Idaho — Ben Lemons, an elementary school principal, received a coronavirus vaccine as soon as he could and tries to model safe practices for his students and staff. He masks up. In a state where relatively few have been immunized, he talks about why he got the shot.

The Shelley, Idaho, educator said he has been vigilant about social distancing and wearing a mask throughout the pandemic. Now, with the delta variant surging, he has become a little more vigilant. He feels safe taking his mask off if there’s a significant distance between him and other people. That’s as far as he’ll go in public.

“Everybody needs to go backward,” Lemons said.

After a couple of glorious months with diminished concern about the coronavirus, the delta variant has imposed a deja vu of risk-reward calculations on Americans, a throwback to the early months of the pandemic when every decision was preceded by a mental run through the positives and negatives.

Work? School? Grocery store? Family visit? Indoor restaurant? It’s all, once again, a mentally taxing exercise in fear vs. desire at a time when many hoped the pandemic would be receding into history.

How to stay safe as covid-19 cases from the delta variant are on the rise

This time, there are new variables to consider — most importantly, the widespread availability of highly effective vaccines. But while the coronavirus vaccines lighten the load by offering superb protection against severe disease and death, they are not perfect. Vaccinated people can become infected, although most should develop a mild course of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

And more than 130 million Americans have yet to receive one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, including children under 12.

William Tang of Newton, Mass., is confronting those limits. He, his wife and his young child hunkered down through the pandemic and diligently followed health guidelines. Now, he is watching case numbers rise, especially at an intended vacation destination. He is reassessing what they should do and where they can go.

The hyper-transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus has left would-be travelers uncertain. The Post spoke to an expert about how to safely make that call. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Because we have an unvaccinated child, we’re concerned about where we can travel to,” he said. “We haven’t gotten to the point of canceling, but certain locations are listed by the CDC as highly contagious areas, so we have to change plans and visit where it’s safe to actually go.”

Holly Amaro is not surprised to see the rise of the new variant, but for now, a vaccine isn’t part of her plan. She said she hopes to have another child and doesn’t have enough information to have confidence in the vaccines. The rumor that coronavirus vaccines affect fertility has no basis in fact.

“They haven’t had it around long enough to know its impact on women and their female organs,” said Amaro, who lives in San Diego.

Health officials recommend that pregnant women — who are at greater risk for having a severe case of covid-19 — get vaccinated. Officials said vaccination surveillance systems showed “no safety concerns” for tens of thousands of women vaccinated during pregnancy and their babies.

Amaro is not saying never. “I’m just in that middle, where there’s not enough [information] to say to get it,” she said.

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Sherlyn Hoyt, a Meridian, Idaho, woman who, at 67, is among the most vulnerable to the deadly effects of the virus, is more adamant about her vaccine choice. Her day-to-day routine looks very much as it did before the pandemic. She quickly returned to public places as soon as 2020 stay-at-home orders lifted and comfortably goes about most of her day without a mask.

Unless she’s visiting a medical facility or business that requires a mask, she rarely wears one. She said she’s counting on prayer to protect her and her loved ones from covid-19.

“I’m wearing my mask less. I’m putting my trust in the Lord, not in man,” she said. “And I will not take the vaccine. I’ve heard horror stories about the vaccine.”

The speed and sheer number of changes in the pandemic have whipsawed a weary and sometimes confused public. The seven-day average number of daily infections, which sank to 11,254 on June 21, hit 114,688 Monday, a more than tenfold increase in seven weeks, according to data analyzed by The Washington Post. Hospitals are again filling up, mostly in places with low vaccination rates. Younger people seem to be more affected than in past waves of the outbreak.

But that is only the beginning of what people have had to absorb. Research shows the delta variant is not only twice as transmissible as the original strain of the virus, it may cause more severe disease. Drug companies and the government are investigating whether efficacy of the vaccines wanes over time and whether some people, including the immunocompromised and health workers, will need a booster shot. Vaccinated people can transmit the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention again changed its recommendation on mask-wearing.

It’s a lot to deal with.

Elizabeth Whittington, 43, of Southaven, Miss., attended an open-house event at a child’s school Tuesday night, and “the place was just packed,” with half the people in the crowded hallways not wearing masks.

“They may have been vaccinated, I don’t know,” she said. “It’s hard to keep up with the ever-changing recommendations but even if you’ve been vaccinated now, if you’re going out in public and you’re inside, you should be wearing a mask.”

The day after the CDC released its new mask guidelines, Whittington attended an in-person event that took place both inside and outside. “A lot of people were confused and uncomfortable,” she said. “Do I put my mask on, do I not? We just have to get into the habit of wearing a mask again.”

Masks and covid-19: Explaining the latest guidance from the CDC and other experts

Her family goes to the movies and restaurants in what she described as “measuring that risk and benefit.”

“When we walk in, we walk in with masks, and when we sit down, we’ll take our masks off and hope for the best, which is not great, but it’s like any little bit of protection that we can provide ourselves along with trying to keep somewhat-normal activities. That’s just how our day-to-day is going.”

In a recent poll conducted by The Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, a third of adults nationally said they are at high or moderate risk of getting sick from the coronavirus, while two-thirds considered themselves at either low risk or no risk.

About one-third of both vaccinated and unvaccinated adults said they have high or moderate risk of becoming ill. But 29 percent of unvaccinated people said they have no risk of contracting covid-19, while 17 percent of vaccinated Americans put themselves in that category.

“What should a vaccinated person do?” Robert M. Wachter, chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco asked last week in a long thread on Twitter. “. . . Everybody’s got to choose their own risk tolerance, which’ll depend on your psychological state & your risk factors for a bad outcome. It should also be influenced by local prevalence — your chances of a breakthrough infection are much higher if you’re in a place with a high case rate than if you’re in Vermont.”

Should you cancel travel plans because of the coronavirus’s delta variant? Ask these questions.

Former Baltimore health commissioner Leana Wen, a contributing columnist for The Post, wrote the same day that she would “attend an indoor dinner party with all vaccinated people, even if someone there might be engaged in high-risk behavior. But I wouldn’t have this person around my [unvaccinated] children unless they first quarantine and test.”

In San Diego, Randy Blum is straddling the line, determined to leave last year’s anxiety behind, even though the current climate is similar.

“I just take my vitamins, exercise daily, wear my mask, got the vaccine,” he said. “I choose not to keep worrying every day.”

He recently received his first shot of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine and will get the second later this month. He waited because he and his wife were going through fertility treatments. He also put it off for other reasons.

“I’m not an anti-vaxxer,” he said. “Maybe I was lazy? Maybe I thought I could just — it’s tough when a year and a half goes by and you feel great.”

The mixed messages he hears also gave him pause. “It’s confusing, because they’re pushing the vaccine down your throat, and then saying it doesn’t even work, but it will prevent serious illness or death,” he said.

He changed his mind as the delta variant emerged. He doesn’t want to infect anyone else. He has started wearing a mask in stores again “as a courtesy to other people. I’m personally not afraid anymore. I can’t live in fear.”

Moser reported from Newton, Mass.; Popescu reported from San Diego; and Bernstein reported from Washington. Sarah Fowler in Columbus, Miss., and Jacqueline Dupree and Emily Guskin in Washington contributed to this report.