Just as people across the U.S. began to think and hope the COVID pandemic was winding down, the Delta variant has sprung up and caused fresh chaos. While the new strain’s rapid spread indicates that it’s more contagious than the original, it appears less lethal. As public discussion continues to focus more on the number of cases than the number of deaths, however, a return to mask mandates and a greater push to vaccinate the nation appears to be in the cards.
In the wake of the Delta variant, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued new guidance, recommending universal mask-wearing in areas with high case numbers and commenting on the future of vaccines. Meanwhile, President Biden may soon be taking the next step when it comes to vaccine decrees.
Mask Mandates Making a Comeback?
On July 27, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky began her remarks by saying the Delta variant has eluded the authorities by popping up where scientists have yet to study.
According to Walensky, areas with high COVID case figures should return to masking indoors – for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. Despite referring to a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” she highlighted that even vaccinated people could contract the virus and pass it along to others. She added that masking should be a temporary measure in such areas until a higher proportion of people get inoculated.
The CDC director stated:
“In rare occasions, some vaccinated people infected with the Delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others … In areas with substantial and high transmission, CDC recommends fully vaccinated people wear masks in public, indoor settings to help prevent the spread of the Delta variant. This includes schools … Finally, CDC recommends community leaders encourage vaccination and universal masking to prevent further outbreaks in areas of substantial and high transmission.”
With the CDC’s latest advice, will a new mask mandate be coming to a city or state near you? According to Walensky, such requirements are only necessary in areas with a large number of COVID cases. However, the guidance may not clear up much when it comes to the national debate on mask-wearing; those areas willing to impose mandates will do so, while defiant regions will likely continue to resist. Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak (D) has already imposed an indoor mask requirement in multiple counties following the advice, while California is considering the same (currently only unvaccinated residents need to wear masks in the Golden State).
Members of the House of Representatives are now being made to take up their masks again, after several staff members tested positive for COVID. Anyone who enters the House without a face covering will once more be subject to fines. The move, as with many mask mandates, is serving to further polarize the political atmosphere. “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,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) tweeted.
One response against the CDC’s desire to see masks in schools came from Donald Trump. “We won’t go back,” the former president said. “We won’t mask our children. Joe Biden and his Administration learned nothing from the last year. Brave Americans learned how to safely and responsibly live and fight back.” He added, “Don’t let this happen to our children or our Country.”
Will Current Vaccines Become Obsolete?
Among the biggest nuggets from Walensky’s Q&A session was the statement that, while current vaccines are thought to be somewhat effective against Delta, they may eventually be outmoded by new strains of the virus:
“The largest concern that I think we in public health and science are worried about is … the potential mutations away we are from a very transmissible virus that has the potential to evade our vaccines in terms of how it protects us from severe disease and death … the big concern is that the next variant that might emerge, just a few mutations potentially away, could potentially evade our vaccines.”
The possibility of new coronavirus mutations cropping up that may be immune to existing vaccines is not a surprise. New strains of a virus often develop in order to adapt to circumstances. Consider the highly mutable influenza virus – new strains appear each year, thus new flu vaccines are administered to the public as the old ones become outdated. This CDC statement, however, may cause some to wonder whether there will be any end to COVID vaccines – will new and novel concoctions be pushed on the populace on a regular basis as new breeds of the virus evolve?
Government Workers Faced with Vaccine Mandate?
President Joe Biden backed up the CDC statements, telling reporters, “More vaccinations and mask-wearing in the areas most impacted by the Delta variant will enable us to avoid the kind of lockdowns, shutdowns, school closures, and disruptions we faced in 2020.” The president also had a few barbs for those who have yet to accept the injection. “If you’re not vaccinated, you’re not nearly as smart as I thought you were,” he said.
While Walensky demurred to openly recommend a vaccine mandate, it appears the Biden administration is considering enforcing one for federal employees. The president stated on July 27 that such a rule, which could affect four million employees, is “under consideration right now.” Anonymous sources told Politico the administration is now discussing the topic with labor unions.
The potential mandate for federal workers follows on the heels of the Department of Veterans Affairs announcing it will require its frontline health care workers to get vaccinated, as well as authorities in New York City and California demanding that government employees get inoculated or face regular testing. The Department of Justice backed up these decisions, publishing an opinion that the law “does not prohibit public or private entities from imposing vaccine requirements, even when the only vaccines available are those authorized under EUAs [Emergency Use Authorizations].”
With the Delta variant reviving a supposedly waning pandemic and bringing new intensity to the call for vaccines and mask-wearing, some may be wondering whether COVID will ever be truly gone from their lives. After all, a virus can mutate at any time, and it’s unlikely to be eradicated. Will society learn to master COVID, or will COVID become the new master?
Read more from Laura Valkovic.