With coronavirus infections climbing throughout the country and the pandemic worsening once more, the Biden administration needs to strongly urge a return of covid-19 restrictions.
We were right. The CDC’s honor system didn’t work. The unvaccinated took off their masks, too; not enough people were vaccinated to be a backstop against further surges; and infections began to soar.
Compared with two weeks ago, daily coronavirus infections in the United States have climbed 145 percent. The most contagious form of SARS-CoV-2 yet, the delta variant, accounts for the majority of new infections. Vaccinated people are still well-protected from becoming severely ill, but reports abound of breakthrough infections. Because the CDC has inexplicably stopped tracking mild infections among the vaccinated, however, we don’t know how frequently these occur. In addition, because those infected with the delta variant appear to have a viral load that’s 1,000 times higher than that of those infected with the original strains, it’s an open question as to whether vaccinated people who contract the variant can infect their unvaccinated close contacts.
It’s time for the CDC to issue new guidance that takes into account these emerging concerns. It can reiterate that vaccination is safe and effective by stating that the vaccinated are safe around others who are also fully vaccinated. In settings where everyone is known to have immunity, no additional restrictions are needed.
However, if vaccinated individuals are around those who remain unvaccinated, the unvaccinated could pose a risk to the vaccinated, particularly those who live at home with young children or immunocompromised family members. So the CDC needs to state, as it should have in May, that unless there is a way to distinguish between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, indoor mask requirements should be reinstated. Los Angeles County has issued such a mandate. The federal government should urge other jurisdictions to follow suit.
This is particularly urgent in areas with escalating outbreaks. Covid-19 hospitalizations in southwest Missouri have already surpassed the winter peak there. Multiple hospitals in Arkansas are full, with doctors treating younger, and sicker, patients, including tweens. In these low-vaccination areas, the pre-vaccine tools of masks, distancing and avoiding indoor gatherings need to be deployed again to stem the surge.
Unfortunately, the areas with the lowest vaccination rates are also the ones least likely to implement mask mandates. Still, leadership from the Biden administration can make a difference. There are many businesses and local jurisdictions that look to the federal government for direction. Those that dropped mask mandates after the CDC’s change in tone could be convinced to reinstitute them.
The federal government could also use this opportunity to — finally — incentivize vaccination. It could say that areas with high vaccine uptake do not need to reimplement mask mandates, and mandate vaccination on planes and trains and in federal buildings. And it can finally get behind a vaccine verification system that would allow restaurants, gyms, workplaces and universities to create safe, maskless environments where everyone is vaccinated.
Lack of strong federal leadership impedes the ability of local jurisdictions to implement policies that protect their residents. In Los Angeles County, the sheriff stated that he would not enforce the new mask mandate, calling the order “not backed by science” because it conflicted with the CDC guidelines. This is a clear demonstration of how local health departments rely on the political cover provided by the CDC to enact unpopular but necessary actions.
A more cautious approach from the CDC would also realign the entity with leading health-care organizations. On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new recommendations for schools that emphasized universal masking for everyone 2 and older. Notably, and in direct contradiction to the CDC, it stated that even vaccinated individuals should be masked in the classroom. These pediatricians recognize the reality on the ground: Without proof of vaccination, the unvaccinated have been behaving as if they were vaccinated, which has disincentivized them from getting inoculated and contributed to the surges we are now seeing.
The Biden administration has done many things right during the pandemic, but it made a grave error with its premature return to normalcy. It must hit reset and issue new guidance that addresses the escalating infections, waning interest in vaccination and unknowns of the delta variant. If it doesn’t, we could well be on our way to another national surge — and one that was entirely foreseen and entirely preventable.
Coronavirus: What you need to know
End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.
Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.
The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.
New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.
Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?
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