Coronavirus FAQ: I'm Vaccinated And Confused. Do I Need To Mask Up Or Not?
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In May, the CDC said if you're vaccinated, you don't need to wear a mask. That was before the rise of the highly infectious and deadly delta variant in the U.S. Now the World Health Organization and LA County recommend that even those who are vaccinated should consider wearing a mask inside. The CDC has not changed its guidance, which is leaving a lot of people confused, so health journalist Sheila Eldred is here to help us make sense of the conflicting guidance.
Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
SHEILA ELDRED: Thank you for having me.
SHAPIRO: So the CDC says vaccinated people don't need to wear masks indoors. The WHO says they do. How should people reconcile this?
ELDRED: Well, it's a really good question. This delta variant is really posing a dilemma to health officials because now that restrictions were already lifted, it is tricky to reimpose things like mask mandates. I talked to Dr. Leana Wen recently about this. She is an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. And her take on it is that the CDC never should have issued their guidance that we drop the indoor mask mandates. And she's hoping that they reinstate it and that others - local jurisdictions will do exactly what LA County did.
SHAPIRO: Except - setting aside the political debate and just looking at the public health risk, we keep hearing that vaccines protect people against the delta variant and other dangerous variants. If that's the case, why would somebody who is fully vaccinated need to wear a mask inside if the vaccine protects them?
ELDRED: So we do know a few things about these variants, especially the delta variant. We know that the Pfizer vaccine is about 89% effective against severe cases of COVID caused by the delta variant. But there are some question marks. We don't know how good the vaccines are at preventing mild cases of - cases caused by the delta variant. And people may not notice that they're sick and be spreading it. We don't know how the Johnson & Johnson vaccine works against it. And then we do know that some of the therapies used for COVID, like convalescent plasma, they don't work as well against the delta variant.
SHAPIRO: So you're identifying some unanswered questions about whether people who are fully vaccinated can get mild illnesses from the delta variant. Another question is whether they can pass that on to unvaccinated people. And early in the pandemic, we were told, there isn't good evidence on this, so act as though you can transmit it even if you're vaccinated. Then we were told the evidence is in. There's not a significant risk of transmission. Are you now saying there might actually be risk of transmission, and even vaccinated people should act as though they could infect somebody who's not vaccinated?
ELDRED: Well, that is what some public health officials are saying in the absence of more information at this point. So I talked to Dr. Jill Weatherhead, who teaches about adult and pediatric infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, about this. And she said in the absence of any data on that, that she will continue to wear masks herself indoors in public spaces because she has little kids who can't be vaccinated, and she also has an immunocompromised spouse.
SHAPIRO: We also talk about the role that infection rates in community spread play in all of this. I spoke a couple weeks ago with the head of a health system in southwest Missouri, where about 40% of people are vaccinated, and he said their COVID cases have increased fivefold over the last month. And he told me that every single case in the hospital is somebody who's not vaccinated. In a community like that, would a fully vaccinated person want to consider masking up?
ELDRED: Yes. I think they might want to in that case. It depends somewhat on your own risk tolerance, of course. But locally, when transmission rates are high and vaccination rates are low, it might be a good idea for a vaccinated person to wear a mask.
SHAPIRO: That's health journalist Sheila Eldred.
Thank you so much.
ELDRED: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN MERCER'S "HERE COME THE WARM JETS")
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