On July 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance on masking, suggesting that those who are vaccinated, particularly in areas with substantial or high viral transmission, resume wearing masks in indoor public settings. Within hours, competing choruses of disgruntlement were proclaiming loudly and clearly either that the CDC should never have relaxed its mask guidance for vaccinated people, as it did in May, or that the CDC was overreacting and that expecting people to mask up again was a bridge too far.
Over the next few days, the rationale for the CDC’s new guidance began to take shape, and by the end of that week, a slide set had been released on the website of The Washington Post that outlined the reasons for the CDC’s alarm. Central to the agency’s new concern was an outbreak of the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 that infected close to 900 people in Provincetown, Mass. Many of those infected in Provincetown went on to develop symptoms—with a handful requiring hospitalization.
We have known for some time that the Delta variant is more contagious, but the Provincetown outbreak demonstrated that while vaccines do provide significant protection against severe disease and death, they do not prevent us from catching or spreading this new strain, which the CDC has characterized as being as transmissible as chickenpox. Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser on Covid, highlighted the worries: “The most recent data,” he said, show “that when a person gets infected who has been vaccinated…and they get infected with the Delta variant, that the level of virus in their nasopharynx is about a thousand times higher than with the Alpha variant.”
While talking heads and pundits dueled on television and social media over the CDC’s announcement, the real action was playing out elsewhere. The risks associated with the Delta variant largely depend on the proportion of your local population that is vaccinated and masked. That is, if your neighborhood, county, or state is undervaccinated and recommendations for mask wearing are ignored or discouraged, you’ve got a big problem: Delta is going to rip through your community like a California wildfire in August. In the US, public health decisions are made by governors and mayors, state legislatures and city councils. It’s not what the CDC says; it’s what your local leaders do.
Governors like Doug Ducey, Ron DeSantis, and Greg Abbott are railing against efforts to get Americans to wear masks and get vaccinated as the worst threat to freedom in our nation’s history. While Mitch McConnell and a few other Republican leaders have made some performative concessions to the importance of these public health measures, this past week also saw Republican members of the House of Representatives descend unmasked on the Senate to protest this gross attack on our values. Give me liberty or give me Covid! Most of us want to protect ourselves and our loved ones—even strangers—from sickness and death. Sadly, that’s simply not the American way for many in the GOP.
We surely have to keep scrutinizing the decisions our leaders make, including those by the directors of the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, and the FDA, President Biden, and the rest of his team. But the main threat to the nation right now isn’t to be found in the missteps in Atlanta, Bethesda, or Rockville or at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It is instead those who are abandoning large swaths of the population to a virus we know how to contain. Vaccinations and masking can beat the Delta variant, but we’re only as strong against it as the individual links in the chain. Too many politicians have made a cynical, almost nihilistic choice to use opposition to these proven—though imperfect—interventions as an opportunity for career advancement, a route to power, even as they risk the lives of their constituents.