The United States is at an unprecedented point in the pandemic, with just under half of the population fully vaccinated, health and safety restrictions looser than they have been in 18 months, and new coronavirus infections on the rise again after months of decline.
As the delta variant spreads, public health experts and officials are emphasizing that vaccines are the best way to protect against severe illness and hospitalization. More than 97 percent of new hospitalizations due to the delta variant are from unvaccinated people, resulting in what Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, refers to as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Despite the fact that the delta variant is more infectious than the original strain that first emerged in the United States last year, health experts say precautions can help both vaccinated and unvaccinated people limit their risk.
Due to an increase in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations, Los Angeles County recently decided to reinstate indoor mask rules — regardless of vaccination status. Some other cities have also begun to encourage vaccinated people to wear masks inside.
The CDC should have included parameters on the mask rules, such as establishing a threshold allowing unvaccinated people to go without masks only if a certain percentage of the population is inoculated, according to Emily Landon, chief infectious-disease epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine.
According to several experts consulted, it is safe for fully vaccinated people to spend time indoors with other fully vaccinated people. Even in crowded indoor settings, the shots have proven to be extremely effective. Nonetheless, they believe it is prudent to continue wearing masks in environments where there may be people who have not been immunized.
On the risk scale, an outdoor setting for fully vaccinated, masked, and socially isolated people is the safest—but perhaps not the best party setting. If you’re at a large outdoor gathering and don’t know whether the people around you are vaccinated, Ezell recommends masking up or socially separating yourself because “the delta variant has shown that it’s rampant and unforgiving in its ability to spread.”
While the outdoors is generally less risky for coronavirus transmission due to ventilation, Yonatan Grad, an associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, advises staying aware of your exposure to other people, noting that an experimental outdoor music festival in the Netherlands in early July has been linked to nearly 1,000 new infections.
Grad urged people to consider risk in more than a binary sense of “safe” or “unsafe.” Other factors, such as infection and vaccination rates in a given area, are critical. Going to a party in a community with rising covid-19 cases and low vaccination rates, for example, may be riskier than going to one in a community with a high vaccination rate.
Despite the fact that children have milder cases of covid-19, Landon says infections in children follow the trend lines in delta variant hot spots: States with large outbreaks are seeing more children with infections.
Adults and older siblings can reduce the risk to children who aren’t old enough to receive a vaccine, according to Landon, by avoiding crowded indoor settings and wearing a mask inside.
According to Landon of the University of Chicago, because the risk of contracting covid-19 increases with the amount of close contact with infected individuals, even healthy people who have been vaccinated face a risk — albeit a low one — when they voluntarily increase their exposure.
When it comes to meeting vaccine skeptics, Ezell, the vaccine hesitancy outreach coordinator in Florida, says she follows her pastor’s advice: You gain people’s confidence not by “beating them over the head” but by planting a seed.
No health expert can predict the future, but most people who spoke to The Post were skeptical of a return to widespread restrictions like stay-at-home orders and shuttered businesses like those seen in 2020.
Some restrictions, such as indoor mask rules seen in Los Angeles County, may be reinstated, though Landon and other experts believe they will be hyperlocal and responsive to infection and hospitalization rates in a specific area.
Landon compared state-imposed measures, such as masking rules, to fighting with small children.