The CDC is announcing today that fully vaccinated people should wear masks again in indoor public settings, because of spread of the Delta variant. People aren’t going to comply. However this change makes an extension of the federal transportation mask mandate more likely.
There’s a lot of uncertainty right now,
- About the spread of the virus in the U.S. Cases are rising, but perhaps far more than reported, because centered around younger unvaccinated people symptoms may be milder leading to less testing (the same holds for many cases among vaccinated people, who also may just assume it’s not Covid because they’re vaccinated).
- Because of higher viral loads – the Delta variant seems to infect rapidly, part of making it more transmissible and also potentially overwhelming the sterilizing effect of vaccination in some cases (so whereas before an asymptomatic case might be highly unlikely to spread the virus we no longer know this to be the case).
This Is Mostly About Source Control
If we are talking about masks for personal protection then of course it’s a mistake to lump them all together. Pieces of paper coving nose and mouth with a string generally ‘count’ for meeting mask mandates, but provide little protection.
However it seems like the real rationale for the CDC’s guidance is uncertainty about the extent to which vaccinated people might spread the virus. We know this was not happening often before, but really do not know if this has changed. This is in many ways a failure of genomic surveillance, tracking of breakthrough cases (with the CDC only paying attention when a vaccinated person is hospitalized), and total breakdown in contact tracing.
We’ll Almost Certainly Need Booster Shots
In addition it seems as though immunity from vaccines may wane, especially in older people. Lower antibody levels may lead to more breakthrough infections, even if cases are more mild (since it takes time for B- and T-cells to address an infection).
The need for booster shots is almost a certainty, requires planning, but the government appears to be dragging its feet on this – and it’s concerning that more mRNA doses haven’t been ordered than are already in the pipeline. Pressure on U.S.-based Moderna likely prevents this country from going to the back of the line but the lack of action could create shortages again.
People Aren’t Going To Follow CDC Guidance
Mask mandates have been lifted in most places and people have stopped wearing them, except where they’re required by employers or by government.
And while there are breakthrough infections, severe cases and hospitalizations are relatively rare. Even with waning antibodies there’s just not evidence that the Delta variant represents an outsized risk to most vaccinated people (especially those who aren’t elderly or with significant comorbidities). And as a result many vaccinated people just aren’t going to wear masks anymore. Unvaccinated people weren’t likely wearing masks to begin with.
Since CDC guidance is just guidance, since so many have tired of restrictions, and since the CDC has done so much damage to its credibility throughout the pandemic it seems unlikely their advice will be heeded by a majority of people.
What Does This Mean For Masks On Planes?
The transportation mask mandate is currently set to expire September 13. There will be intense lobbying on this issue. Southwest’s CEO wants to see the mask mandate expire. So does United’s. American’s CEO has said he expects the mandate to sunset. However some unions may push for an extension of the requirement.
If the current wave of infection peaks in August, case levels may not be so low as to make it difficult to extend. “Just once more to get us through this wave” becomes a possibility, especially if (as seems likely) the CDC hasn’t again reversed itself on mask guidance.
Put another way, the recommendation that vaccinated people wear masks indoors again makes an extension of the federal masking requirement for transportation more likely.