WASHINGTON — Top science officials in the Biden administration sought on Thursday to allay concerns about the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus, which has prompted renewed calls for mask wearing in some places.
Compounding the alarm was an announcement last week from the World Health Organization that even vaccinated people should continue to wear masks. “Vaccine alone won't stop community transmission," a top WHO deputy explained in justifying the move, which appeared to cause some confusion.
But as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top science adviser to the Biden administration, explained during a Thursday briefing of the White House pandemic response team, the global situation cannot be compared to that in the United States. Those vaccination rates are “dramatically different,” he said, showing a chart that made the vast gap vividly apparent: While only about 11 percent of the world has been vaccinated, 47 percent of the American population is immunized against the coronavirus.
The Delta variant also appears to puncture the protection offered by the first dose of a two-dose mRNA vaccine. Partially vaccinated people appear to be better protected against other versions of the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen. Those other variants, however, are far less concerning to most public health officials than Delta.
As Fauci noted, studies have shown the Pfizer vaccine — one of the two mRNA vaccines most widely used in the United States, alongside Moderna’s — to be 96 percent effective in preventing illness from the Delta variant serious enough to require hospitalization. (There is less evidence regarding the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but Fauci said “one could anticipate” that its efficacy would turn out to be “at least similar, perhaps even better” than that of its mRNA relatives.)
The Delta variant is believed to be about 60 percent more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2 strain, but that does not mean it is necessarily more lethal. So, for example, while that strain is becoming more prevalent in Israel, and infections are indeed rising there, that nation’s highest-in-the-world vaccination status has offered consistent protection. Only one person in Israel died from the coronavirus during the second half of June.
Although many Americans discarded masks in May, some believe it is time for them to return. That, at least, is the position of Los Angeles County public health officials, who advised even vaccinated people to mask up in indoor settings.
But how concerning is the Delta variant to Los Angeles, which is 60 percent vaccinated? The county, which is home to 10 million people, has averaged only five new coronavirus deaths per day over the last week, even though infection rates have risen slightly since the arrival of the Delta variant several weeks ago.
The Biden administration is obviously uninterested in litigating the mask culture wars, given how fraught that issue has been from the very start. To be sure, masks are highly effective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus, but vaccines provide what is for many people a more lasting, more convenient and possibly less contentious solution.
“If you are vaccinated, you have a high degree of protection,” Fauci said at Thursday’s briefing. “So you need not wear a mask, either indoor or outdoor.”
The day before, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky made the same point in a television interview. “If you are vaccinated, you are safe from the variants that are circulating here in the United States,” she said. Unvaccinated people still need to wear masks, according to CDC guidelines.
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