Mask Comeback? Covid-19 Variants Bring About New Mask Mandates
By: Madyson Fitzgerald
Just months ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that people who received the COVID-19 vaccines could put an end to mask-wearing. On Tuesday, they reversed that guidance.
What looked like the end of the COVID-19 pandemic has quickly been replaced by the fear of COVID-19 variants. The World Health Organization has identified the Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta variants as “variants of concern.” The WHO identified four others as “variants of interest.” The Delta variant, in the last few weeks, has emerged as the most infectious of them all.
Although the CDC said that the current vaccines work against the variants, they can only offer so much protection. “These variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19,” they said in a statement released a few weeks ago.
“An increase in the number of cases will put more strain on healthcare resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths.”
In June, only about 8,000 cases were being reported daily. This week, the number jumped back up to over 50,000 daily cases. The CDC and WHO said that these cases are due to the spread of COVID-19 variants among unvaccinated groups. Those who are vaccinated may still contract the virus, but the likelihood of needing to be hospitalized is considerably lower.
On Tuesday, the CDC said that fully vaccinated people should wear masks while in public to “maximize protection from the Delta variant and prevent possibly spreading it to others.” This is especially true of those who live in areas of high transmission.
“Wearing a mask is most important if you have a weakened immune system or if, because of your age or an underlying medical condition, you are at increased risk for severe disease, or if someone in your household has a weakened immune system and is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated,” the statement continued.
Less than half of the United States has been fully vaccinated. After a surge of vaccinations in the spring, it abruptly came to a halt as people became more skeptical about the short- and long-term effects. For some — particularly communities of color — there is a long-standing mistrust in the medical field.
In a few weeks, millions of college students will be moving back onto campus for largely in-person instruction. Most schools have made vaccines a requirement, and those that have not are advising unvaccinated students to remain masked up. The delta variant, however, has caused pause for certain campuses.
The majority of elementary and secondary schools have agreed that students should continue wearing masks, no matter the vaccination rate. Colleges, however, sit in a very delicate position. Requiring vaccines was already a very controversial matter — considering none of the vaccines have been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Requiring masks for vaccinated and unvaccinated campus members may disturb the plans that were set in place months ago.
In Virginia, over 20,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported at 41 colleges and universities. According to The New York Times College COVID-19 Tracker, Virginia Commonwealth University has reported over 1,100 cases since the pandemic began. At the University of Richmond, they’ve reported a total of 520 cases. Virginia Union reported the smallest amount of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic with only 30.
“At this point, thinking about wearing a mask is a little like dressing for the weather,” said Virginia Tech’s Linsey Marr to The New York Times. “You need to consider the caseload and vaccination rates wherever you’re going, what activity you’ll be doing, and your own health.”
Traveling to school may be the most concerning factor this semester. Clare Rock, an expert and professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine asked two questions in a conversation with The Washington Post: “Is it essential travel to see a sick family member or something along that line? Or is it travel for recreation or pleasure that could be done in an area where there is less covid-19 circulating?”
Over the next few weeks, colleges and universities are expected to finalize their move-in plans for the fall semester. The Delta variant — and others of its kind — will greatly influence the journey back to the classrooms we know and love.