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Communication around masks is still terrible

The Delta-driven surge is making it harder

A pattern of light blue face masks against a purple background. Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced long-awaited guidelines in May for when vaccinated people could stop wearing masks, some experts cautioned that the changes were coming too soon. We were still learning more about the vaccine’s protection, and epidemiologists were worried about coronavirus variants. If mask rules were lifted and cases spiked again, reinstating them would be difficult.

Well, cases are now rising again across the country in a Delta variant-fueled surge, and that’s making mask recommendations just as difficult to handle as people feared. The surge is most devastating in places with low vaccination rates, but it’s also hitting states and counties where most adults are vaccinated. So not long after lifting mask mandates, some places — like Los Angeles county — are reinstating them. The American Academy of Pediatrics split from the CDC’s guidance (unchanged since May) and is recommending that even vaccinated adolescents and teens wear masks in schools this fall.

The conservative pushback to masking policies is back, too. The Los Angeles sheriff says he won’t enforce the county’s mask mandate. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott says he won’t reimpose statewide masking. It would be “inappropriate to require people who already have immunity to wear a mask,” he told KPRC in Houston.

People across the political spectrum are frustrated about the constantly changing direction. This whiplash and confusion is just the latest chapter in the mask communications drama that’s been going on for more than a year. Here in the US, there’s been poor public health messaging around face coverings from the very beginning of the pandemic. In April 2020, the White House and CDC first pivoted from telling people to not wear masks to telling them to wear them. The inconsistency was bad for public trust, Rob Blair, an assistant professor of political science and international and public affairs at Brown University, told The Verge at the time.

“What we have is inconsistent messaging, sometimes from the same source,” Blair said. “What we have is utter cacophony. That’s detrimental not only for the quality of the response, but for trust more generally.”

Over a year later, we’re facing the same cacophony. It doesn’t help that the messaging is more complicated now that vaccines are widely available. Masks may not be as critical for vaccinated people if case rates are low, but they’re important where cases are high or rising — even though vaccinated people are protected from the worst of the disease. Kids under 12 are at lower risk from COVID-19 than adults, but they can’t be vaccinated yet, and masks are a big way to protect them. Faced with a confusing back-and-forth, people who gleefully threw out their masks may be reluctant to put them back on.

“I think people will be disappointed that folks were having some hope and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel — and this would be a suggestion that we’re taking a step back,” Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, told The Washington Post.

As jarring as it may be to start wearing masks in more places again, the fact is that they’re still one of the simplest ways to protect against the spread of this disease. There’s also no denying that they’re still a highly politicized culture war flashpoint. The early flubs by the CDC and the initial obstruction by the Trump White House set the foundation for the mask turmoil of the past year. Now, at a key juncture in the United States’ response to the pandemic, it’s just as messy and high-stakes as ever.

Here’s what else happened this week.

Research

How Delta is pushing the U.S. into a new phase of the Covid-19 pandemic
COVID-19 vaccines protect against the variant, but Delta spreads fast through the unvaccinated. People are still going to get seriously ill, but older people are more likely to be vaccinated — so younger people are the ones in the hospital. (Andrew Joseph / Stat News)

New Data Leads To Rethinking (Once More) Where The Pandemic Actually Began
Data on early COVID-19 cases led evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey, an expert in pandemic origins, to conclude that a natural origin is the likeliest explanation for the origins of the coronavirus. He thinks it’s less likely that it came from a lab. (Michaeleen Doucleff / NPR)

The Delta variant makes up an estimated 83 percent of U.S. cases, the C.D.C. director says.
The variant is highly contagious and spreading rapidly, especially in parts of the country with low vaccination rates. (Sheryl Gay Stolberg / The New York Times)

Development

Novavax’s Effort to Vaccinate the World, From Zero to Not Quite Warp Speed
At one point, Novavax was a frontrunner in the COVID-19 vaccine race. But research delays and shortages of manufacturing materials were big setbacks. It’s still a good vaccine, but it’ll arrive later than hoped. (Sarah Jane Tribble and Rachana Pradhan / Kaiser Health News)

States are sitting on millions of surplus Covid-19 vaccine doses as expiration dates approach
A large batch of Pfizer vaccines is set to expire in August unless data on its shelf stability lets the data be pushed back. Federal officials rejected states’ requests to send extra doses to other countries, Stat News reports. (Olivia Goldhill / Stat News)

Perspectives

I’m admitting young healthy people to the hospital with very serious COVID infections...One of the last things they do before they’re intubated is beg me for the vaccine. I hold their hand and tell them that I’m sorry, but it’s too late.

— Brytney Cobia, a doctor in Alabama, wrote in a Facebook post about the strain of caring for COVID-19 patients at this stage in the pandemic.

More than numbers

To the people who have received the 3.5 billion vaccine doses distributed so far — thank you.

To the more than 192,174,864 people worldwide who have tested positive, may your road to recovery be smooth.

To the families and friends of the more than 4,130,345 people who have died worldwide — 609,879 of those in the US — your loved ones are not forgotten.

Stay safe, everyone.