Sigh, it might be time to mask up again

WESTMINSTER, CA - AUGUST 05:  Protective masks hang from a tent as a shopper passes by wearing a mas...
Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
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In order to protect ourselves and every other human we came into contact with, most of us wore masks faithfully right up until we hit our peak post-vax immunity. At that point, mask guidelines generally loosened. But now it looks like recommendations could be changing again. With the Delta variant beginning to wreak havoc on the unvaccinated in the U.S., we all may have to go back to wearing masks.

Delta is currently the dominant COVID-19 variant in India and Europe, and it’s poised to become the leading cause of COVID infection in the U.S., reported the New York Times. Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO), recommended — as it has throughout the pandemic — that everyone, including vaccinated individuals, wear masks indoors. On Monday, public health officials in L.A. also announced that everyone should wear masks indoors, which is a reversal of the advice they gave two weeks ago, when California lifted mask and gathering restrictions.

“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,” Los Angeles county officials told the Times. To be clear, social distancing and capacity limits are not required by law.

So basically, L.A. county officials aren’t requiring people to wear masks, but they are strongly recommending it as a way to curb the spread of Delta without disrupting business. In case you don’t recall, L.A. was one of the U.S. cities hit hardest by COVID-19 infections and they have had a recent uptick in infections, so they have good reason to be cautious there.

The recommendations of WHO and Los Angeles officials feel a little confusing. WHO never lifted their recommendation that everyone, including inoculated individuals, wear masks indoors. WHO representatives told Scientific American that even though the vaccinations are highly effective, none of them is foolproof. Although you probably won’t get very ill if you’ve been vaccinated, you can still contract the Delta variant. And vaccinated people can still become part of a “transmission chain,” meaning they can spread the virus to others. But the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it’s okay for vaccinated folks to go maskless, and other major cities, like Chicago and NYC, aren’t bringing back the mask mandates, according to the Times. What’s up with these discrepancies?

The truth is that WHO and CDC are often at odds in their public health recommendations. Back in 2105, these two agencies disagreed about whether people in areas affected by Zika virus should delay pregnancy, and now they offer us different perspectives on who should wear masks and wear. Both of these agencies make their recommendations based on the advice of top scientific experts, so, who are we supposed to believe; WHO, which is part of the United Nations, or our own U.S. agency, the CDC?

Personally, I tend to go with whoever offers the advice that seems to protect the most people, and some experts think that CDC 's initial recommendation to lift mask mandates wasn’t exactly premature, it just wasn’t preemptive. “When the CDC made the recommendation to quit masking, it didn’t anticipate being in a situation where we might need to recommend masking again,” Angela Rasmussen, a research scientist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, told the Times.

Look, you don’t have to wear a mask unless it’s required by law, but do you really want to be one of those people? The reality is that you can spread Delta even if you’ve been vaccinated, and while U.S. health experts seem slow to recommend masking back up, international scientists don’t seem quite as reticent. As Ravindra Gupta, a virologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, told the Times, “Masking in public enclosed spaces needs to continue even after vaccination, until we can get everyone vaccinated or a new vaccine that is more effective against Delta transmission.”