The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that the coronavirus pandemic is far from over — and residents within the United States should take immediate measures to protect themselves and their loved ones.
The best way to do that? Vaccination, experts say.
During a special address on Tuesday, CDC director Rochelle Walensky warned that the highly infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus has been dominating COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations over the past several weeks and beyond. And though the current authorized vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson help lessen the severity of the virus, they can't stop it completely, she warned.
The Delta variant carries a viral load 1,000-times higher than the original virus — called Alpha — does, making it 2.5-times easier to transmit among people, Walensky said.
Additionally, new data shows that vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals who are infected carry the same high levels of the virus; that means that even though a vaccinated person may not become hospitalized like an unvaccinated person likely would, they still could share the virus with others who are not protected. She said this is a grave concern in areas with low vaccination rates.
"Unlike the Alpha variant that we had back in May, where we didn't believe that if you were vaccinated you could transmit further, this is different now with a Delta variant," Walensky said.
Walensky said that the virus could mutate further and become even more infectious, adding that the country's overall low vaccination rates enabled the Delta variant in the first place.
"This could have been avoided with higher vaccination coverage in this country," she said.
No vaccine is 100% effective, but according to Yale University, the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson (J&J) COVID-19 vaccines are about 95%, 94% and 72% effective, respectively. Experts say that the vaccines largely lessen the effects of COVID-19 and its variants, including Delta.
Walensky said that the CDC now is recommending that all individuals resume wearing face masks indoors and in crowds, especially in regions of high transmission — even vaccinated individuals. Walensky stressed that because of Delta's high transmissibility, it's much easier to infect people who can't be vaccinated at this time, such as children under age 12 or immunocompromised people.
"We're seeing now that it's actually possible if you're a rare breakthrough infection that you can transmit further, which is the reason for the change," Walensky said.
Walensky also said the CDC recommends masking for all students and employees in schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.
"CDC recommends localities encourage universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status," the CDC's new guidance says. "Children should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with proper prevention strategies are in place."
In May, the CDC had advised that vaccinated individuals no longer needed to mask up but unvaccinated individuals should continue to wear masks, practice physical distancing and consider vaccination. New data has changed that.
"We're not changing the science," Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, told CNN Tuesday night. "The virus changed, and the science evolved with the changing virus."
Schools Consider Masking Again
On Monday, before the CDC's announcement, the Ohio Department of Health shared its COVID-19 precautions for school districts and parents but stopped short of mandating masks for students and employees, despite their effectiveness.
"While there are no mandates associated with this guidance, we believe that the recommendations we are issuing are essential to the health of Ohio’s youth, and the success of the coming school year," said Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, chief medical officer for the Ohio Department of Health.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently updated its school-opening recommendations, encouraging a “layered approach,” including mask-wearing for anyone older than age 2.
On Monday, Dr. Patty Manning-Courtney, chief of staff at Cincinnati Children’s, said much of the safety measures are not up to the children, especially those younger than 12 who aren’t eligible for the vaccine.
“I don’t want to see the day where somebody under age 12 was infected because someone in their life chose not to be vaccinated or chose not to wear a mask,” Manning-Courtney said. “That would be a sad day.”
Early Wednesday morning following the CDC's address, Cincinnati Children's sent a statement recommending masking for all students and employees.
"Cincinnati Children’s recommends that all children returning to in-person school wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. Many children are not yet eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and others should mask because no vaccine is 100% effective at preventing infection," the statement said. "In addition, teachers and staff should continue to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status."
Cincinnati Public Schools has been exploring a mask mandate for the 2021-2022 school year but has not yet announced its decision. CityBeat has reached out to the district for comment.
Low Vaccination Rates Trouble Ohio and Kentucky
The CDC's new recommendations come as Delta is sweeping across Midwestern states and population centers. Overall, 56.9% of the nation has gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 49.2% are fully vaccinated. According to the CDC, a “fully vaccinated” person is one who is two weeks past their second dose of a two-dose vaccine (Pfizer and Moderna) or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine (J&J).
Scientists have said that for group immunity from coronavirus to happen, the full vaccination rate needs to be at about 70%-80%.
But regions throughout the country are seeing much, much lower numbers of vaccinated individuals, particularly since vaccination rates dramatically slowed in May. Experts have said that while national and state numbers are helpful, local vaccination rates control how much and how quickly the coronavirus spreads throughout an area, particularly near border states where people frequently travel.
As of 3 p.m. July 27, 48.99% of Ohioans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Ohio Department of Health's dashboard. Only 45.78% of residents within the state are fully vaccinated.
In Hamilton County, 51.40% have gotten one COVID-19 shot, while 48.08% are fully vaccinated. The CDC's COVID-19 tracker labels the county's coronavirus transmission as moderate.
Kentucky is faring a little better. Overall, 51% of the state's population has gotten one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Team Kentucky dashboard. The data there does not break out full vaccination.
In Kenton County, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, 55.8% of the population has had at least one dose of an authorized vaccine; 49.9% of county residents are fully vaccinated. The CDC says that there is substantial COVID-19 transmission within Kenton County.
But many counties within Ohio and Kentucky are seeing much lower vaccination rates, which troubles health experts because of Delta's highly infectious nature.
As of Wednesday morning, most of Kentucky's counties were red or orange, which on the CDC's tracker means high or substantial risk of virus transmission. In Lincoln County, for example, only 33% of the population has been vaccinated. In Ohio's Fayette County, only 34% have been vaccinated.
In some regions across the country where coronavirus cases have skyrocketed, such as Los Angeles and St. Louis, officials are implementing new health restrictions and are asking residents — including those who have been fully vaccinated — to wear masks when outside the home.
Jerome Adams, the previous U.S. Surgeon General appointed by former President Donald Trump, recently said that it was "premature" to ease mask restrictions in late May and early June, as Kentucky, Ohio and many other states had done. The CDC had recommended that fully vaccinated individuals no longer needed to wear masks for their own protection or the protection of others, but many local governments used that to walk back all mask mandates, eliminating a preventative measure while vaccination rates continued to decrease.
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