To mask or not to mask? For the fully vaccinated, is that still a question?

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In May, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) made a surprise announcement that rocked the nation. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that in accordance with recent data, masks and social distancing were no longer necessary for fully vaccinated Americans.

The CDC’s abrupt departure from its previous masking-wearing guidelines infused a COVID-weary nation with a shot of hope that the end of the brutal pandemic was near. Yet, some were confused by the sudden turnabout, as the pace of vaccinations across the country has reportedly slowed while COVID-19 variants have increased.

As of late, concerns about the variants have ramped up with the emergence of the Delta variant, first detected in India, where it took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Cases of the Delta variant are on the rise around the world and in the U.S. So much so that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, recently designated the variant as the “greatest threat” to eliminating the virus in the U.S.

The Delta is now the most dominant variant of COVID-19 in the U.S., accounting for more than 51% of COVID-19 cases in the nation. Thus far, the variant had been identified in 85 countries and a subvariant of the Delta, what’s being called the Delta Plus, has surfaced.

Subsequently, on June 25, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that fully vaccinated people continue to wear a mask. The WHO’s guidelines state to “wear a mask, especially in crowded, closed and poorly ventilated settings,” and continue to practice social distancing.  Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous county, followed suit with similar guidelines.

The WHO takes into account the global health outlook and the Delta variant has dominated globally, causing lockdowns in Australia, Africa, and Asia. Israel, a world leader in COVID-19 vaccinations, is also currently grappling with an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Seeking to clarify any apparent contradiction in masking guidelines, on June 30, Dr. Walensky made the morning talks show rounds. “We know that the WHO has to make guidelines and provide information to the world,” explained the CDC director on the “Today” show.

“Right now, we know as we look across the globe that less than 15% of people around the world have been vaccinated, and many of those people have only received one dose of a two-dose vaccine. There are places around the world that are surging, and so as the WHO makes those recommendations, they do so in that context,” said Walensky.

To date, 66.8% of Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, which falls short of the Biden administration’s and CDC’s stated goal of 70% by July 4. However, Dr. Walenksy noted that fully vaccinated Americans are protected against the current variants and that mask-wearing is primarily to protect the unvaccinated, not fully vaccinated.

Dr. Walenksy also stressed that ultimately, fully vaccinated Americans need to survey their own personal circumstances when deciding whether to mask up or not. She noted that people who live in areas across the U.S. with low vaccination rates or people managing an immunocompromised condition or a transplant should still continue to wear masks.

On Thursday, Gov. Tim Walz announced that Minnesota has reached the goal set forth by President Biden and the CDC to vaccinate 70% of the state’s 18-and-older population by July 4. CDC data shows that 3,034,281 Minnesotans age 18 years and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Because of COVID-19 vaccines, new cases and hospitalizations are down to some of their lowest levels of the pandemic,” said Walz of state’s achievement. The state’s data also shows that 51.4% of Black Minnesotans have been vaccinated, compared to 62.9% of Whites. Black Minnesotans make up 5.9% of the state population and account for 5.0% of the state’s vaccination rate.

Linsey Marr, a leading expert in viral transmission and professor at Virginia Tech, echoed the need for people to make educated personal decisions. She told the New York Times, “At this point, thinking about wearing a mask is a little like dressing for the weather. You need to consider the caseload and vaccination rates wherever you’re going, what activity you’ll be doing, and your own health.”

Dr. Marr added that mask-wearing is a good idea “in very crowded indoor setting for a long period of time, like air travel, where masks are required anyway, or a crowded movie theater, playhouse or concert venue, for example.”

One thing that both the CDC and the WHO agree on is that unvaccinated people should continue to wear masks, practice social distancing, and get vaccinated as soon as possible—if they’re medically able to do so. At this point, the overwhelming majority of COVID-related deaths are of people who have not been vaccinated.

The vaccines “are nearly 100% effective against severe disease and death—meaning nearly every death due to COVID-19 is particularly tragic because nearly every death, especially among adults, due to COVID-19 is at this point entirely preventable,” Dr. Walensky told CNN.

For info on state vaccination locations, go to VaccineConnector.mn.gov.

Updated 7/8/2021 to provide current data for the Delta variant in the U.S.

About Paige Elliott

Paige Elliott is the digital editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. She can be reached at pelliott@spokesman-recorder.com.

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