As Variant Spreads, Some Regions Bring Back Mask Advisories

In this June 11, 2021, file photo, customers wear face masks in an outdoor mall with closed business amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Los Angeles. The latest alarming coronavirus variant, the delta variant, is exploiting low global vaccination rates and a rush to ease pandemic restrictions, adding new urgency to the drive to get more shots in arms and slow its supercharged spread.

In this June 11, 2021, file photo, customers wear face masks in an outdoor mall with closed business amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Los Angeles. The latest alarming coronavirus variant, the delta variant, is exploiting low global vaccination rates and a rush to ease pandemic restrictions, adding new urgency to the drive to get more shots in arms and slow its supercharged spread. AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

In St. Louis and Los Angeles, officials are urging vaccinated residents to wear masks as cases of the Delta strain of Covid-19 are on the rise.

Face masks may make a comeback in some parts of the country as concern grows over the spread of a highly contagious strain of coronavirus.

Public health departments in some regions are warning vaccinated individuals to resume wearing masks when in public and around people whose vaccination status is unknown. Their concern stems from the rapid increase in Covid-19 infections attributable to the highly contagious Delta variant.

The Delta strain accounted for 51% of new Covid-19 infections in the U.S. as of July 3, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s up from just 3% of infections at the end of May. 

But in some parts of the country, the variant is responsible for a much higher percentage of infections. More than 80% of new infections in Midwestern states, including Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska, are from the Delta strain, according to the CDC.

In Missouri, only about 40% of the population has been fully vaccinated. The low vaccination rate, coupled with the spread of the Delta strain has spelled trouble for rural parts of the state where infection rates have surged.

Concern about the state’s rising infection rate led St. Louis-area public health officials to revise their mask-wearing recommendations. St. Louis and St. Louis County issued a joint statement last week advising vaccinated individuals “to wear masks or other face coverings whenever they are indoors with other people whose vaccination status is unknown.”

“As we monitor the Delta variant, we are seeing that it’s spreading fast, and data shows it is more infectious and impacting younger segments of the population,” said Dr. Fredrick Echols, acting director of the St. Louis Department of Health.

The Los Angeles County Department of Health also revised its mask-wearing guidance over fear of the surge of new infections caused by the Delta strain.

The county now recommends that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, “wear masks indoors in public places as a precautionary measure.”

“Until we better understand how and to who the Delta variant is spreading, everyone should focus on maximum protection with minimum interruption to routine as all businesses operate without other restrictions, like physical distancing and capacity limits,” the health department said in a statement.

The local guidance varies from the CDC’s current recommendations, which state that vaccinated people can safely “resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing” except as required.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky stressed last week during an interview on the Today Show that masking policies are meant to protect the unvaccinated and that fully vaccinated adults “are quite protected from the variants that we have circulating here in the United States.”

But she acknowledged that local health officials may revise guidance based on conditions in their regions.  

“We've always said that local policymakers need to make policies for their local environment,” she said.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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