The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, is trying to assuage vaccinated people’s fears about the Delta variant of the coronavirus. This morning, Walensky said that vaccinated people should remain protected from Delta and that they still didn’t need to wear masks in most situations. Notably, the World Health Organization has recently reiterated its own position that vaccinated people should continue to wear masks indoors.
Walensky’s comments were made during an interview this morning on NBC’s Today. She was asked about the recent reversal of mask guidelines in cities like Los Angeles, which recommend that even vaccinated individuals should be wearing masks when inside public spaces, as well as about the WHO’s similar position on mask-wearing. The WHO’s stance hasn’t changed since the start of widespread vaccination last winter but has gotten renewed attention in the wake of Delta’s spread throughout the world.
Walensky first addressed the differences between the WHO’s recommendations and those of the CDC, which say mask-wearing isn’t needed for vaccinated people outdoors or indoors, except in certain higher-risk scenarios, like being on public transit or in medical facilities. Because so little of the world’s population is vaccinated, she argued, the WHO’s more cautious guidelines make sense globally, if not necessarily for the U.S. So far, around 23% of the world is partially vaccinated, while only 10% is fully vaccinated; the U.S., by comparison, has about 46% of its entire population fully vaccinated.
She then noted that the federal government has always allowed states and localities to set their own policies on covid-19-related restrictions and that more aggressive measures might need to be taken in places with low vaccination rates that remain at higher risk of new outbreaks. But she also emphasized the evidence showing that vaccines continue to provide protection against covid-19.“Those masking policies are not to protect the vaccinated, they’re to protect the unvaccinated,” Walensky said.
She then made it clear that the CDC would not be changing its guidelines anytime soon, even with Delta on the rise. “If you are vaccinated, you are safe from the variants that are circulating here in the United States,” she said, adding that everyone should feel free to make their own judgements about mask-wearing, particularly for certain vulnerable groups such as the immunocompromised.
As discussed by Gizmodo before, there is plenty of evidence suggesting that people fully vaccinated with either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccines continue to be highly protected from illness, especially serious illness, that could be caused by Delta. It’s less certain whether the same is true for the 12 million Americans who have gotten the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine, which has prompted some experts and doctors to recommend an mRNA booster.
J&J has said that it will have data on whether effectiveness is lowered from Delta soon. But other evidence, including from AstraZeneca’s similar adenovirus-based vaccine, suggests that protection against illness will likely only be reduced by a few percentage points at most, while effectiveness against serious illness and death should remain high—points that Walensky reiterated herself.
“Right now, we have no information to suggest that you need a second shot after J&J, even with the Delta variant,” she said. “Generally people are agreeing that they anticipate that J&J will perform well against the Delta variant, as it has so far against other variants circulating in the United States.”
The CDC’s confidence is certainly going to be put to the test, with Delta likely to become the dominant strain of the virus in the U.S. in a matter of weeks. On Tuesday, the CDC announced that about a quarter of new cases are now estimated to be caused by the variant. And while cases, hospitalizations, and deaths do remain near record lows, there are signs of regional outbreaks fueled by Delta starting to emerge.