The highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus has forced a return to face masks in some places. Despite the grim disappointment of what might appear to be a step backward, the nation’s pandemic response must not flag. Vaccines have proved to be extraordinarily effective in preventing severe disease and death, and there is no better solution at hand than getting millions more people vaccinated in the United States and the world. Face masks can restrain the spread of this virus. However, it is going to take longer than once hoped. We must not give up.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed guidelines for face masks two months ago for the vaccinated, the decision seemed warranted. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths had plummeted among the vaccinated, and an average of more than 1 million vaccine doses were being administered every day. Now things have changed. In July, the daily doses administered have been less than half a million a day. The seven-day average of new daily cases has soared from 11,701 on June 19 to 51,836 on July 25. The delta variant now accounts for 8 in 10 cases in the United States. Given this shift in circumstances, the CDC is issuing new advice.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) could not be more wrong — and foolish — than when he said on Twitter, “Make no mistake — The threat of bringing masks back is not a decision based on science, but a decision conjured up by liberal government officials who want to continue to live in a perpetual pandemic state.” Does the Republican leader not understand that senselessly politicizing this issue is a certain route to a “perpetual pandemic state?”

For those who are confused by changing government advice, hear this: Vaccinated or not, if you are in an area where community transmission is elevated, wear a face mask when indoors in public, crowded areas and in schools. If you are not vaccinated, rush to get one; it can save your life. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky revealed in her briefing Tuesday that the reason for the switch on masks is the discovery that some vaccinated people are transmitting the delta variant although they are not feeling sick. Wearing a mask protects the wearer and those nearby, especially if they are among the vulnerable: unvaccinated, children or immunocompromised.

At a time when hundreds of millions of people around the world are desperate for a shot, it is unfathomable why only 57.6 percent of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated when the doses are free and widely available. We think vaccine mandates by organizations — businesses, health-care institutions, government — are defensible and sensible for in-person activity. It is also evident that incentives can work. A stiff campaign must be waged against vaccine misinformation and hesitancy.

If we truly want this miserable pandemic to end, we have to act — together, and with a clear sense of what it will take to put it behind us. The minor inconvenience of a face mask and the prick of the vaccine needle are a small price to pay for the long-term health and safety of all.

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