In the United States, masks are becoming a far less common accessory, under federal guidance that once vaccinated, they’re largely unnecessary.
But the World Health Organization recently recommended that even vaccinated people continue to wear masks, and Los Angeles health officials this week recommended all people – vaccinated or not – should wear them inside because of concerns about the Delta variant.
So who’s right?
It depends on individual circumstances, experts told USA TODAY.
A vaccinated person who isn’t immunocompromised is safe going without a mask in the United States right now, said Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California.
Vaccines available here are effective against known variants, including the Delta variant, said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said vaccinated people need not mask except when on airplanes, buses or mass transit or in medical settings. Gandhi said that guidance “should not change and is unlikely to change in this country where our cases are still on the decline.”
The World Health Organization made a different decision, because its audience is different, she said. They’re making recommendations for a planet where in many countries less than 10% of the population has had a single shot.
“Therefore, the WHO is making recommendations for places with high rates of community transmission with such low percentages of the population vaccinated that the vaccinated are more likely to encounter virus and have a breakthrough infection,” she said. Plus, in some countries, the available vaccines may not be as effective as ones here.
CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky echoed that sentiment Wednesday morning on NBC News’ Today show, saying that people who are vaccinated in the U.S. are protected against currently circulating variants and that WHO’s guidance is designed for other parts of the world.
“Here in the United States, we’re fortunate. We have three vaccines that we know are safe and effective. We have two-thirds of the adult population that is fully vaccinated. And, really, quite protected from the variants that we have circulating here,” Walensky said.
There may be contexts where local officials need to make local decisions that are different than the national one, she continued.
“There are areas of this country where about a third of people are vaccinated. They have low vaccination rates. And there are areas that have more disease,” Walensky said, so it may make sense to have different local policies.
But, she added, “those masking policies are not to protect the vaccinated, they’re to protect the unvaccinated.”
In Los Angeles County, for instance, officials have recommended that people continue to mask even after getting their shots, out of concern for the fast-spreading Delta variant, which now accounts for half the cases there.
“Until we better understand how and to who the Delta variant is spreading, everyone should focus on maximum protection,” the Los Angeles County of Department Public Health said Monday.
An unvaccinated person is at a higher risk for catching COVID-19 anywhere, but particularly in an environment where infection rates are high, Topol said.
U.S. vaccines remain highly effective in protecting against serious infection with the Delta variant, Gandhi said.
Vaccine effectiveness against hospitalization with Delta was similar to that seen with Alpha, she said: 94% after the first dose and 96% after the second with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is nearly identical to Moderna’s. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine also is quite effective.
“We have every reason to believe … J&J will perform against the Delta variant,” Walensky said.
Virtually everyone now hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States has not been vaccinated.
In a study released Tuesday by the Epic Health Research Network, of more than 8.6 million vaccinated people, only 4,260 – or .049% – became infected with COVID-19 and only 1,594 were hospitalized with the virus.
Vaccines are “brilliantly successful” at preventing hospitalization, but they’re not as perfect at preventing disease transmission, said Dr. William Schaffner, in infectious disease expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, in Nashville, Tennessee.
People who are vaccinated have a low risk of getting sick themselves, but can cut down on the risk of transmitting the virus to someone else by wearing a mask.
“I think that’s what L.A. and WHO are focused on,” by recommending mask-wearing, Schaffner said, particularly in light of the Delta variant, which is known to be more contagious than other variants.
But the U.S. is not in enough of a crisis situation at the moment for the CDC to recommend the entire country mask up again, he said.
“They’re trying to keep society functioning and don’t want revolts,” he said.
It may be ironic, he admitted, but most of the people still wearing masks in the U.S. have already been vaccinated – like him.
“I don’t think there’s anything oppressive about wearing a mask,” said Schaffner, who wears one routinely as a doctor, but he sees that some people are deeply uncomfortable with them.
Schaffner said he will continue to wear a mask in public and avoid large events as a “belt and suspenders” approach to further reducing his own risk of infection and transmission.
Contact Karen Weintraub at [email protected]
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