Begin with one simple fact: The Delta variant of COVID-19 is more contagious than the original virus, but it is not more dangerous or likely to kill you. If you are vaccinated and are exposed to it, you may get infected. This infection is likely to be mild; occasionally vaccinated people get sick. These symptoms are usually mild, manageable, and pass within a day or two.
The first case of the Delta variant — previously referred to as “the Indian variant” — in the U.S. was diagnosed at the end of March. Our active COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have declined since that date, although the daily number of new cases has increased dramatically in recent weeks. This is what we would expect to see from a variant that is more contagious but equally virulent.
As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keep emphasizing, about 99 percent of current hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated — fewer than 1,200 of more than 107,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations in May were of vaccinated individuals. If you are vaccinated, the virus can’t do much harm to you, even if it’s the Delta variant. But if you are unvaccinated, the risk of a serious health issue is what it was at the start of 2020 — a minor risk if you’re young and healthy, and a significantly higher risk if you’re elderly, immunocompromised, or have other health issues. But you’re more likely to encounter Delta than other variants these days because it spreads so easily and quickly.
The problem for the CDC, and the country, is not the 163.3 million Americans who are fully vaccinated — and there’s a good chance that the 25.6 million or so Americans with their first shot will get around to getting their second shot. The problem is the nearly 80 million American adults who are eligible to get vaccinated and who haven’t yet. (Despite what a lot of news coverage would suggest, this demographic is not overwhelmingly or even largely MAGA-cap-wearing rural Trump voters. Lots of unvaccinated Americans live in America’s biggest and most heavily Democratic cities, and 40 percent of New York City Department of Education employees remain unvaccinated.)
The CDC has decided that because of the risk to the unvaccinated, everyone — including the fully vaccinated — should mask up once again to stop the spread. Just like that, we’re back to 2020, with Americans fighting over whether they need to wear one indoors, outdoors, and in schools, and policing each other when the masks slide under their noses. All to protect people who have been eligible to get vaccinated since mid April, and who, in most cases, have deliberately chosen to not get the shot.
We’ve seen a big push to get teenagers to get vaccinated, but when school starts in the fall, vaccination status won’t make any difference, as the CDC now recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, “regardless of vaccination status.”
Yes, there are some Americans who can’t get vaccinated yet, most notably children under twelve. Thankfully, children in this age group are at minimal risk of serious health issues from COVID-19. Yes, children who are infected should be kept home, treated, and monitored for those exceptionally rare cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome. But most children’s encounters with COVID-19 will pass like a case of the sniffles.
At a time when the CDC ostensibly wants to emphasize the benefits of getting vaccinated, the agency is declaring that the same rules apply to the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike. There is little evidence that reinstating mask mandates will spur reluctant Americans to go get vaccinated. There is a good chance it will backfire, as more and more of the public concludes that CDC guidelines can turn on a dime and contradict past statements.