Jul 22, 2021
The highly transmissible Delta variant is fueling an alarming surge in new coronavirus infections across the United States, intensifying pressure on the White House and federal public health agencies to take steps to curtail the spread and prevent additional unnecessary deaths.
New figures from Johns Hopkins University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that coronavirus cases have jumped by at least 55% across the U.S. over the past week, and hospitalizations and deaths have been trending upward in recent days. The state of Florida, led by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, is recording nearly 6,500 new cases per day--far and away the most in the country.
"Unfortunately, the areas with the lowest vaccination rates are also the ones least likely to implement mask mandates. Still, leadership from the Biden administration can make a difference."
--Dr. Leana Wen
Over the past two weeks, new coronavirus infections have nearly tripled nationwide as large clusters of the U.S. remain undervaccinated, threatening the entire nation. Roughly two-thirds of U.S. counties have vaccination rates of less than 40%.
While some so-called "breakthrough" infections and deaths among vaccinated people have been documented, the latest jump in cases poses the greatest threat to those who have not been fully inoculated--around 40% of all U.S. adults. According to federal health officials, 97% of recent coronavirus-related hospitalizations and over 99% of deaths have been among the unvaccinated.
Rochelle Walensky, the head of the CDC, made clear earlier this week that the ultra-contagious Delta variant is behind the latest increase in cases and hospitalizations, telling reporters that the strain now accounts for an estimated 83% of new infections in the U.S.
The specter of another devastating wave of Covid-19--which has killed more than 609,000 people in the U.S.--has spurred calls for the CDC to revive indoor mask and social distancing guidelines that it rolled back in May as cases declined, a decision that nurses and public health experts criticized as ill-timed and dangerous.
In a column for the Washington Post earlier this week, emergency physician Leana Wen argued that the Biden administration "made a grave error with its premature return to normalcy."
"It must hit reset and issue new guidance that addresses the escalating infections, waning interest in vaccination, and unknowns of the Delta variant," Wen wrote. "If it doesn't, we could well be on our way to another national surge--and one that was entirely foreseen and entirely preventable."
Specifically, Wen urged the CDC to "state, as it should have in May, that unless there is a way to distinguish between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, indoor mask requirements should be reinstated."
"Unfortunately, the areas with the lowest vaccination rates are also the ones least likely to implement mask mandates. Still, leadership from the Biden administration can make a difference," Wen added. "There are many businesses and local jurisdictions that look to the federal government for direction. Those that dropped mask mandates after the CDC's change in tone could be convinced to reinstitute them."
\u201cConstant reevaluation is the bedrock of sound public health. The circumstances around #covid19 in the US have changed, and the Biden administration needs to change course. It\u2019s time to back indoor mask mandates again & to get behind proof of vaccination. https://t.co/CroI6FJrQ3\u201d— Leana Wen, M.D. (@Leana Wen, M.D.) 1626901910
Eric Feigl-Ding, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, echoed Wen, imploring the CDC to "show some leadership and act faster."
"May is now two months ago, Feigl-Ding tweeted Thursday. "It is time to backtrack and update the guidelines. Tick tock, lives are on the line."
"When you're starting to see hospitalizations tick up, you have to do something."
--Caitlin Rivers, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security
According to the Washington Post, White House and CDC officials are considering issuing new guidance that would ask "all Americans to wear masks when vaccinated and unvaccinated people mix at public places or indoors, such as at malls or movie theaters." The Biden administration also recently launched an effort to boost stalling vaccination rates, which have left states across the U.S. "drowning" in unused doses.
"So far, leaders in the White House have been hesitant about any policies that would explicitly require Americans to show proof of their vaccination status," the Post reported Wednesday. "Depending on where discussions lead, that decision could ultimately fall to business owners who want to offer mask-free environments."
Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the Post that "when you're starting to see hospitalizations tick up, you have to do something."
"You have to make a move," Rivers said, "or you find yourself back in a place where we don't have enough hospital capacity."
But any attempt by the Biden administration to revive mask and distancing guidelines would likely run into furious opposition from state and local Republican leaders, who have consistently downplayed the severity of the pandemic and flouted coronavirus-related federal health guidelines.
As Politicoreported Thursday, "Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, South Carolina, and Utah have in recent months... enacted new laws limiting local authority over the Covid response or any future health emergency," constraining officials' ability to impose coronavirus safety restrictions as cases rise.
"In Texas, where Covid hospitalizations are up 30% and deaths up 10% over the past week, Gov. Greg Abbott recently barred counties, cities, and school districts from requiring masks," Politico noted. "Montana did the same for vaccine and mask mandates, whileletting local officials overrule health department orders. And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose state accounts for one in five of new U.S. infections, asserted power to nix local health orders if he concludes they infringe on individual rights."
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