By The Herald Editorial Board
There’s a cliche common to most action movies; toward the big final scene, the superheroes, having dealt what appears to be the fatal blow to the supervillain, catch their breaths and pass around high-fives and back-slaps, only to be surprised when the villain leaps back to life to continue the battle.
The audience, having seen enough blockbuster movies, knows what’s coming, even as final-scene gullibility and overconfidence prove to be the ultimate superhero kryptonite.
Like the audience at an action flick, we should have seen this coming.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention early last week reconsidered the guidance it had issued in May that those who were fully vaccinated could go without wearing masks indoors in public settings; the new guidance reversed that advice and said that — regardless of vaccination status — those living in covid hot spots should resume mask use in public indoor settings and around vulnerable household members such as those with compromised immune systems and children younger than 12 who are not yet eligible for a vaccine. Likewise, the CDC called for face masks in school settings for teachers, staff and students, regardless of vaccination status.
What happened between May and last week? It was covid’s latest sequel: the delta variant.
Late last week the CDC began releasing some of the data and details that led to its decision to update its mask advice. While the CDC, the World Health Organization and other medical authorities maintain that vaccines remain safe and effective in preventing serious illness, hospitalizations and death, the delta variant — as we had been warned was possible early in the pandemic — has mutated to become far more transmissible; and not just among those who are unvaccinated, but even among those who are.
The delta variant, now the most prominent cause of covid infections in the United States and elsewhere, produces a viral load in those it infects that makes it far easier to transmit to others. It may now be as infectious as the common cold or chickenpox. And that’s true for the vaccinated as well as the unvaccinated.
In fact, one study released Friday by the CDC, found that three-fourths of people infected in a recent outbreak in Massachusetts had all been fully vaccinated. The disease has adapted, and unlike the original coronavirus and earlier variants, delta is spreading easily among those who are vaccinated.
This is not an indication that vaccines are now useless against covid, and it shouldn’t be used as a justification by those who still refuse to be inoculated.
The good news is that for the most part those who are vaccinated yet infected with the delta variant experience far less severe symptoms and may not experience symptoms at all. As has been the case in recent weeks, hospitalizations and deaths are occurring almost exclusively among those who have not been vaccinated. To repeat, vaccination — even in cases of “breakthrough” infections — provides superior protection against serious illness, hospitalization and death.
The CDC’s reverse-course on masks, then, is necessary to again slow the spread of covid, infections for which have jumped in recent weeks nationwide from 13,000 cases per day at the start of July to more than 56,000 a day.
Snohomish County, according to the Snohomish Health District, is in the midst of its fifth such surge in cases with 634 cases reported between July 11 and 17. The two-week rolling average of cases in the county also has doubled in recent weeks, from 68 cases per 100,000 residents in mid-June to 139 cases per 100,000 in the first half of July.
To put that case count in perspective, the CDC’s new mask guidance is urged for counties where the rate of infection is 50 cases for every 100,000 residents. Nearly two-thirds of counties in the United States now meet that threshold.
Vaccines and masks remain two of the most-effective tools we have to fight covid-19.
Local, state and national vaccination efforts now are running up against a population of those who are skeptical and those who are opposed to vaccines. While Washington state has been successful in getting more than 70 percent of those 16 and older to get at least one dose of a vaccine, the rate of vaccination is slowing here and throughout the nation. About 1 in 5 Americans continue to maintain that they will not be vaccinated.
Public officials and even businesses have used a range of incentives — from lottery dollars to free doughnuts — to persuade people to vaccinate. And there seems little appetite in the U.S. for solutions used successfully elsewhere, such as vaccine passports. The one stick joining the bunch of carrots may be government and private business mandates for employees to be vaccinated or face work requirements for testing and masking.
Which is why it’s necessary to again mask up.
Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee joined the lineup of health and government officials urging people to follow the new CDC guidelines on face masks but said that a statewide mask mandate would not be reimposed.
Many of us saw the earlier reprieve on mask use as our reward for having done the right thing and gone in for our jabs. It’s disheartening to have to again reach into our pockets and purses and grab that mask. We thought we were done.
But the supervillain, which has claimed more than 612,000 American lives and caused 4.2 million deaths globally, isn’t defeated yet.
We superheroes must again suit up. The cape is optional; the mask is not.