The recent resurgence in the Covid pandemic due to the spread of the highly infectious delta variant of the virus has undermined the efforts by the Biden administration and the Democrats to claim full political credit for ending the pandemic. It has also given Republicans a golden opportunity to turn the American public’s growing frustration with the gross mishandling of the Covid crisis to their political advantage.
Both the political and public health policy issues surrounding the pandemic have crystallized in a highly partisan debate over the CDC’s proposed return of the mandate for even fully vaccinated individuals to wear a mask indoors, in response to the spike in new infections. There is growing resistance to such a mandate by vaccinated individuals who know that they are unlikely to get seriously ill even if they do suffer a breakthrough Covid infection, and that if they do become infected, they present a significant danger, for the most part, only to those who have refused to immunize themselves by getting inoculated.
The stubborn resistance of a significant percentage of Americans to the mass vaccination campaign became apparent in mid-April, when the daily rate of vaccinations peaked at about three million a day and rapidly fell to less than a third of that number. Biden thus failed to achieve his goal of immunizing 70% of Americans by July 4, reaching that mark only last week. As a result, the US population is still short of the 85%-90% immunization required to achieve “herd immunity” to the virus.
That enabled the virus to keep spreading through the population long enough for the highly virulent delta strain to take hold, resulting in the current sharp spike in new infections, particularly in “red states” with lower immunization rates.
Resistance to vaccination among various groups is due to a number of factors, including suspicions about the effectiveness and the safety of the vaccine fueled by the mixed messages which have been sent by government public health agencies and political leaders. These suspicions have been further amplified by both the mainstream media and rumors spread on social media, as well as growing scientific evidence that many of the most onerous restrictions on personal freedoms imposed during the pandemic were unnecessary, particularly when applied to young school children, most of whom have a natural immunity to all forms of the virus and are unlikely to spread it to others. There is also a growing belief that Democrat officials and teachers’ union leaders exaggerated and then exploited public fears of the virus for their own benefit.
There is also a history of distrust in the black community of public health officials dating back to a notorious incident in which hundreds of African-Americans were used, without their knowledge or permission, as guinea pigs in an unethical medical experiment conducted over a period of decades by federal health officials. There is also a relatively small group of immuno-compromised or allergic individuals who cannot be vaccinated without potentially triggering a life-threatening reaction.
All together, this vulnerable segment of the population accounts for more than 20% of the American population, or up to 70 million people who are now at high risk of infection and serious illness from the delta variant.
LITTLE THREAT FOR VACCINATED PEOPLE
However, for otherwise healthy vaccinated people, and those who have acquired natural immunity from a previous Covid infection, the chance of contracting a “breakthrough” infection is very small, and of becoming seriously ill or dying from the virus is close to zero.
As a result, there is no justification for a renewal of the mask mandate for vaccinated Americans, or the other pandemic restrictions on the everyday activities of individuals who have been vaccinated or who have acquired natural immunity. For these people, a Covid infection has been transformed from a mortal threat into something little more dangerous than a common cold.
Over 99 percent of Covid deaths today occur among unvaccinated people, and because the vaccine is available free of charge today to anyone in America who wants it, such deaths are almost entirely preventable. The CDC has also said that virtually all people hospitalized with Covid in recent weeks, 80% of whom were infected with the delta variant, have been unvaccinated.
Because almost everyone can get vaccinated, there has been a growing grassroots revolt, confirmed by public opinion polls, against the reinstitution of largely ineffective and unnecessary mask-wearing recommendations issued by the CDC last week, reversing its public pronouncement in May that mask wearing was no longer necessary for vaccinated individuals indoors as well as outdoors, and exempting young children from all mask-wearing requirements, even though they are unvaccinated.
There is also a great deal of pent-up frustration and resentment within the general public now that it has been widely recognized that many pandemic restrictions, including the school shutdowns and the closure of “non-essential” businesses, were both unnecessary and very damaging to the American economy and social fabric. Many Americans also object to being lectured about the need to reinstitute Covid restrictions by the same Democrat officials who were responsible for the initial over-reaction to the virus.
THE BROKEN VACCINE PROMISE
Ever since the vaccine became available, officials have been assuring Americans who were tired of wearing masks and the other restrictions that all they had to do was get vaccinated to reclaim their normal way of life. Now they are being told by the same government officials that they still have to wear a mask, even though they have been vaccinated, and even if they are only associating with others who’ve been vaccinated.
Many also resent being required to wear masks again due to their unvaccinated neighbors who are now endangering themselves and others to exposure to the more virulent delta variant by their refusal to be inoculated.
Furthermore, there was always a question over whether a mask-wearing requirement was good public policy, even before the vaccine was available. Some feared that those wearing a mask would have a false sense of security against Covid infection. Only medical grade N95 masks provide such protection to the wearer, and since those were in short supply when the pandemic began, public health officials encouraged people to use regular masks which only slightly reduce the risk of infected people spreading the virus to others.
During a CNBC interview last week, former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb reiterated those doubts about the effectiveness of masks and predicted that the effect of the new CDC masking mandate in reducing the Covid infection rate would be negligible.
Even when the CDC initially relaxed its masking guidelines, some public health officials expressed concern about the public’s willingness to comply if they ever needed to be re-instituted. A public opinion poll in March showed that 56 percent of Americans would resist a new mask mandate. Nevertheless, the CDC decided to take that risk in the hope that the promise of getting rid of masks would serve as an effective incentive to get vaccinated.
Instead, the reinstitution of the mask mandate by the CDC and Democrat officials, even for those who have been inoculated, has only confirmed the conviction in the minds of many still unvaccinated Americans that the vaccines are less effective and more dangerous than those experts and public officials claim them to be.
CDC DIRECTOR UNDER CRITICISM
Because of the mask mandate directive and other Covid policy flip-flops which some believe were politically inspired, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has now joined Dr. Antony Fauci of the NIH as one of the villains who some hold responsible for the confused and ineffective government response to the Covid threat.
Last week, when she announced the new mask mandate, she claimed it was in response to new data indicating that vaccinated people who experienced a breakthrough infections carry a similar viral load as infected unvaccinated people, and could therefore potentially spread the virus to others in areas of high or substantial transmission, contrary to the CDC’s previous belief. The CDC also said all teachers, staff, students, and visitors in schools should wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status in those areas, which make up about 70% of the country; whereas, earlier in July, the CDC said that only unvaccinated people in schools would need to wear masks.
Walensky acknowledged that the change in guidance risked confusing or frustrating members of the public. “This weighs heavily on me,” she said on a call with reporters. “Not only are people tired, they’re frustrated…and I know, in the context of all of that, it is not a welcomed piece of news that masking is going to be a part of people’s lives who have already been vaccinated.”
The new evidence came from the CDC’s investigations of an outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in one cluster over the July 4 weekend which resulted in 469 confirmed Covid cases. Nearly 75% of those infected were fully vaccinated, demonstrating that vaccinated people infected with the delta variant can easily spread the virus and carry as much of it as unvaccinated people. Almost 80% had symptoms of cough, headache, sore throat, or fever. Only four were hospitalized and no deaths were reported, the CDC said.
The CDC also said that 127 vaccinated people infected during that outbreak appeared to carry as much virus as 84 unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people. “High viral loads suggest an increased risk of transmission and raised concern that, unlike with other variants, vaccinated people infected with delta can transmit the virus,” Walensky said. “This finding is concerning and was a pivotal discovery leading to CDC’s updated mask recommendation.”
A Washington Post report also cites an internal CDC slide presentation which says the delta variant is as infectious as chickenpox, which used to sicken some four million Americans a year before a vaccine became available in the mid-1990s. The delta variant is also more transmissible than the common cold, seasonal flu, and smallpox, but less contagious than measles, according to the presentation.
THE ARGUMENT IN FAVOR OF A NEW MASK MANDATE
Many epidemiologists, public-health experts, and healthcare organizations are supporting the new mask guidance because of the rising infection and hospitalization rates driven by the delta variant. Some said they had already started advising vaccinated people to wear masks in indoor public settings or were doing it themselves before the CDC released the new guidance.
“It’s a complicated message, but honestly this is a complicated situation,” said Mary Jo Trepka, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Florida International University. “It’s an important step forward, and it’s really essential given what we’re seeing in the US.”
She and some other public-health experts said that the need for the updated guidance demonstrated how the recommendation in May softening the original mask mandate, which essentially created an honor system for mask-wearing, didn’t work. Many unvaccinated people also put away their masks as businesses and states rapidly adopted the guidance, helping fuel the spread of the virus.
CDC HAS LOST ITS CREDIBILITY
However, many conservative commentators blamed the government’s public health establishment for the confusing message to the general public. An editorial in the Washington Examiner said that Dr. Walensky has made a mockery of the CDC and needs to be replaced as its director. It said that, “under her direction, the CDC changed its guidance to encourage fully vaccinated adults to put their masks back on in certain situations. This flip-flop is not based in science but in hysteria. Vaccinated adults are not at any more risk of falling seriously ill from the coronavirus and its variants now than they were two months ago when Walensky declared that there was no longer any reason for vaccinated adults to wear masks. . .
“Back in March, she declared vaccinated people ‘do not carry the virus’ at all. The next day, the CDC had to clarify that the data on this was not clear. And now we know that vaccinated persons can, in fact, transmit the virus, even though it is extremely unlikely that they will fall ill from it.
“[Under Walensky’s guidance,] the CDC has become untrustworthy, illogical, and prone to reversing itself based on political nonsense. Its guidance has changed so many times, often in spite of scientific data, that the public can hardly know what to believe.”
Her conservative critics contend that Walensky has become part of the Covid control problem rather than the solution. Her latest flip-flop on masking has eliminated one of the public’s biggest incentives for getting vaccinated and will make vaccine-hesitant people even less likely to get the shot.
A BETTER JUSTIFICATION FOR THE MASK MANDATE
Leana Wen, a visiting professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, says she had been calling for updated guidance and the return of masking to indoor public settings, but not because of the risk of breakthrough infections among the vaccinated.
Dr. Wen said that a better reason to bring back masking is the spread of the delta variant among unvaccinated people and the inability to distinguish someone’s vaccination status in a public setting.
“I worry that the new guidance was communicated in such a way that it causes more confusion and sows more doubt on the effectiveness of these extraordinary vaccines,” Dr. Wen said. “The CDC really flubbed their communication once again.”
WHITE HOUSE DENIES INFLUENCING THE CDC
White House officials claim that they have not interfered with the CDC’s internal deliberations or tried to influence its guidelines. But as the spread of the delta variant put pressure on the administration to revisit mask guidelines, President Biden’s aides were worried about how they could announce any significant changes without undermining public confidence in the vaccine. They were aware of the risk that now that the CDC is recommending masks again, some people may conclude that there is no need to be vaccinated. That is not true. Masks are of some modest help in limiting the spread of the virus, but are much less effective in protecting against Covid than getting vaccinated.
Biden has always claimed that he would obey the scientific findings of the CDC first in his response to the pandemic. White House press secretary Jen Psaki last week told reporters that the CDC was the president’s North Star and said he remained confident in Dr. Walensky’s leadership of the CDC.
When the president held a press conference last week, two days after the new CDC guidelines were announced, Biden outlined aggressive plans to put down the new surge of the virus, which his chief of staff later described as using “a full set of carrots and sticks” to push the public into getting their vaccinations.
Biden also mandated that federal workers must declare their vaccination status, while unvaccinated members of that workforce will now be required to mask, test for the virus at least once a week, and socially distance.
Biden also called on state and local governments to incentivize vaccination by offering $100 to anyone finally willing to get two shots of the inoculation.
“After months and months of cases going down, we’re seeing a spike in Covid cases. They’re going up,” Biden explained. “Why? Because even if you’ve been fully vaccinated and protected from severe illness from Covid-19, you could have the delta variant in your system and spread it to someone who isn’t vaccinated.”
BIDEN REFUSES TO RULE OUT FUTURE LOCKDOWNS
A reporter then asked Biden if the shutdowns could return, just as the masks had, given that the science is evolving, the virus is clearly evolving as well, and even Dr. Anthony Fauci has said the country is “headed in the wrong direction.”
Biden answered, “Well, look, you’re literally correct on everything you said, but it doesn’t come to the conclusion you’re implying.” Biden then wished he had the ability to make sure every American was vaccinated. “Then, in fact, we would be out of the woods.”
Even then, Biden continued, “can something else happen a year from now? Can there be a different virus? Can there be something? It’s possible. But I’m talking about Covid and the existing variants that have come forward so far.”
As Biden started walking away from the press conference, Peter Doocy, a reporter for Fox News, called out, “Mr. President, you said, ‘If you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask.’”
Biden quickly snapped back, insisting, “No, I didn’t say that.”
“You did. I have the quote,” the reporter responded.
“I said if you’re fully vaccinated in an area where you do not have,” the president answered back. “Well, let me clarify it.”
Back in May, Biden told the country that it had reached the beginning of the end of the pandemic. He said the new rule was “get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do.” He did not retreat from that statement last week, but said it “was true at the time because I thought there were people who were going to understand that getting vaccinated made a gigantic difference.”
But since then, the president claimed, things have changed. “A new variant came along, they didn’t get vaccinated, it was spread more rapidly, and more people were getting sick,” Biden noted. “That’s the difference.”
RESPONSE TO THE NEW CDC GUIDELINES
In response to the new CDC guidelines, seven San Francisco Bay Area counties, as well as well as the city of Los Angeles, which together account for half of the population of California, now mandate that people wear masks indoors, while New York City officials are recommending that residents also do so to curb rising Covid-19 cases.
In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards reinstated a statewide indoor mask mandate for all people five years or older.
Prior to the release of the new CDC guideline, President Biden had announced that all federal employees would need to get vaccinated or be regularly tested for Covid-19, as did the state of California.
Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he had considered the difficulty of enforcing a new mask mandate and decided instead on a recommendation that would keep the emphasis on the importance of vaccinations. He also said the city would require vaccination as a condition for hiring new employees.
However, on Tuesday, de Blasio changed course and announced that starting in mid-September, after a transition period, New York City will require proof of vaccination for a variety of activities for both workers and customers, including indoor dining, gyms, and live entertainment performances. This puts individuals under more pressure to get vaccinated, as public schools reopen and more workers are expected to start returning to their still largely empty Manhattan offices.
“It’s time for people to see vaccination as literally necessary to living a good and full and healthy life,” de Blasio said at the news conference at which the new requirements were announced. “Not everyone is going to agree with this, I understand that,” he said. “But for so many people, this is going to be a lifesaving act, that we are putting a mandate in place that is going to guarantee a much higher level of vaccination in this city. And that is the key to protecting people, and the key to our recovery.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that workers in the city’s airports and mass transit systems would also be subject to weekly virus testing after Labor Day if they aren’t vaccinated. Cuomo explained that he can’t act to impose a new mask mandate everywhere in the state without new action from the state Legislature. Cuomo previously had broad powers to issue pandemic rules and restrictions, but state lawmakers eliminated them earlier this year.
Meanwhile, school districts and major private companies across the country were taking the initiative to implement their own mask mandates in response to the change in CDC guidelines. Target and Walmart, for example, said they would require workers to wear masks regardless of vaccination status in counties deemed at high risk of Covid transmission.
MASK REVOLT IN SOME RED STATES
But in a number of Republican-led states, including Texas, Florida, Missouri, Arizona and Iowa, state officials have passed laws or used their authority to stop those requirements and keep mask usage optional. The masking policy dispute is similar to last year’s debates over lockdowns that often pitted Republican-led states against Democratic-led cities and school districts.
“Texans, not government, should decide their best health practices, which is why masks will not be mandated by public school districts or government entities. We can continue to mitigate Covid-19 while defending Texans’ liberty to choose whether or not they mask up,” Texas Governor Gregg Abbott said in a news release in response to the new CDC guidelines.
But the Texas State Teachers Association has called on Abbott to reverse his stance as the new school year approaches. “If Governor Abbott really cares about the health and safety of Texas students, educators and their communities, he will give local school officials and health experts the option of requiring masks in their schools,” said TSTA president Ovidia Molina.
Florida reported last weekend its highest one-day total of Covid cases since the start of the pandemic. The state broke its previous record for hospitalizations, also set more than a year ago. Florida now accounts for about one-fifth of new Covid cases nationwide. Only about 48.8% of residents over 12 have been fully vaccinated, with 57.5% having received at least one dose.
Throughout Florida, local courthouses, theme parks, and numerous businesses are again requiring the public to wear masks indoors. Disney World has a vaccine requirement for its workers, while Universal Orlando Resort said all workers have to be masked indoors and that guests should follow CDC guidance. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has pushed to keep mask usage optional, and focused instead on vaccinations, but some school districts in the state have not heeded his call.
In South Florida’s Broward County, the school board voted to mandate masks in schools when they reopen at a hearing marred by anti-mask protesters. Similarly, Miami-Dade County, the largest school district in the state, announced it is reconsidering its policy to keep masks optional.
“I get a little bit frustrated when I see some of these jurisdictions saying, even if you’re healthy and vaccinated, you must wear a mask because we’re seeing increased cases,” DeSantis said last week. “Understand what that message is sending to people who aren’t vaccinated. It’s telling them that the vaccines don’t work.”
Similarly, Missouri’s Republican Attorney General has filed a lawsuit to stop St. Louis from instituting a mask requirement and threatened a similar lawsuit against Kansas City’s proposed mask mandate. Last week, the St. Louis County Council voted 5-2 to overturn the indoor mask mandate, leading to questions of their authority to do so.
PUBLIC OPINION HAS TURNED AGAINST MASKS
Last year, Americans were much more supportive of mask mandates. An Associated Press-NORC poll in July 2020 showed that 75 percent of Americans supported not just wearing masks, but requiring them in public when you were around someone else. Just 13 percent disagreed. Even Republicans agreed with mask mandates, by 58-27.
But now that vaccinations are widely available and federal, state, and local officials have relaxed most Covid restrictions, it is proving to be much more difficult to get the public to accept the need to reimpose them again.
A recent Monmouth University poll shows a much narrower margin of 52-46 percent in favor of “instituting, or reinstituting, face mask and social distancing guidelines in your state.” While 85 percent of Democrats support the new requirements, only about one-quarter of Republicans agree to them.
Not surprisingly, the areas where the mandates have been reinstituted are Democrat strongholds, such as DC, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and New Orleans, where there is more public support for them.
Another poll taken in late July in predominantly-Democrat California supported a statewide mask mandate by a relatively small 49-39 percent margin, compared to 70 percent support for masking in another California poll taken in October.
There is also some evidence that the American public would be more willing to accept a vaccination mandate than a renewal of the masking mandate. Another poll released last month found that 64 percent of Americans support requiring everyone to get a coronavirus vaccine. Another poll also showed support for a national vaccine mandate at around six in 10.
More generally, a recent Rasmussen poll indicates that a broad political cross-section of Americans are now skeptical of the lockdown response to the pandemic, with those doubts ranking highest among groups that are key Democratic constituencies. Overall, 55 percent of those surveyed agreed that “despite good intentions, shutting down businesses and locking down society did more harm than good.” Only 38 percent disagree, with the rest unsure.
That poll found that white Democrats reject the idea that lockdowns did more harm than good by a 30-plus-point margin, but non-white Democrats were evenly divided.
On the question of whether government officials will try to hold on to too much of their pandemic powers in the future, 62 percent of voters say yes. Nearly two-thirds of white Democrats disagreed, but by a 64-27 margin, black Democrats expressed their fears that government officials will abuse their temporary but vast new powers.
TODAY’S DEEPLY CONFLICTED COVID RESPONSE
A Wall Street Journal editorial lays the blame for these growing public doubts on the conflicting messages being delivered by experts, scientists, and agencies such as the CDC, for the resistance to measures now being instituted as a response to the current resurgence of the virus.
“As the coronavirus evolves, so does the science. The delta variant is creating uncertainty about how much vaccines prevent transmission, but the overwhelming evidence shows they are highly protective against severe illness. Please get vaccinated if you aren’t already,” the editorial urges its readers.
“That should have been the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s straightforward message to Americans. . . along with a candid analysis of its evidence. Instead, the CDC. . . issued murky new guidance, without backup evidence, recommending that vaccinated people resume wearing masks indoors in some cases because unpublished studies suggest they could transmit the virus. . .
“What a fiasco. The CDC should be a source of fact and reason, not a hair-on-fire spreader of fear. The agency could start by explaining that Covid cases have been increasing across the US and that more vaccinated individuals are testing positive. But most of these ‘breakthrough’ cases are mild or asymptomatic. . .
“Recent studies show that vaccines are still 88% protective against symptomatic illness and 96% against hospitalization and death. . . CDC evidence suggests delta is more than twice as transmissible as the original virus strain, akin to the chickenpox, which is why cases are rising even in places with relatively high vaccination rates. . . Evidence indicates the delta variant replicates much faster and produces higher viral loads in respiratory passages that allow it to spread more.”
So even though the threat from the delta variant is real, what should have been a united, straightforward message in response, firmly based upon science and public health, has been confused by inconsistency and tainted by partisan politics, leaving the immediate future of the pandemic still very much up in the air.