L.A. health officials: You should mask up again while indoors -- even if you're vaccinated

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

This reminds me of what Israel just went through, lifting their indoor mask mandate as cases dwindled to nearly nothing only to turn around and reinstate it a few weeks later as the B.1.617 “Delta” variant started to push case counts upward again. For the moment, that’s the only restriction the country has reimposed. But it carries psychological weight. Having the government tell vaccinated people that it’s okay to ditch their masks is the closest we’re going to get to an official declaration that it’s safe to get back to normal. Israel just revoked that implicit declaration.

Now L.A. County has done the same, two weeks to the day after the state fully reopened. California endured a brutal winter wave but then saw cases collapse as the state’s vaccination rate soared. For awhile they had the lowest positivity rate of any U.S. state despite having the largest population by far. Cali had conquered COVID through the power of the vax.

But now they’re not sure. A few days ago the WHO announced that even vaccinated people should start wearing masks again to hedge against the risk from Delta, the most contagious variant of SARS-CoV-2. Last night L.A. County’s health brain trust made the same move, “strongly recommending” that Angelenos wear masks indoors until scientists have a better handle on Delta. Why they didn’t outright mandate masks again is anyone’s guess. Possibly they thought it would be too dispiriting to reimpose hard restrictions a mere two weeks after “Freedom Day.” Possibly they recognized that mask mandates don’t work, that people will take precautions based on their personal level of risk tolerance rather than what the government’s ordering them to do.

The best way to increase mask use, then, is to simply sound the alarm about Delta and hope that Californians heed it. So that’s what they did.

“Public Health strongly recommends people wear masks indoors in settings such as grocery or retail stores; theaters and family entertainment centers, and workplaces when you don’t know everyone’s vaccination status,” L.A. County Department of Public Health said in a statement…

“Until we better understand how and to who the Delta variant is spreading, everyone should focus on maximum protection with minimum interruption to routine as all businesses operate without other restrictions, like physical distancing and capacity limits,” the statement added.

How bad are things in California right now? Uh, not very. The trends are in the wrong direction but they’re moving at a snail’s pace. After seeing the state’s positivity rate drop all the way to 0.6 percent, it’s inched back up to 1.3 percent — still fantastically low. After dipping to an average of 20 deaths per day earlier this month, they’ve climbed back to 36 per day, nearly double but still less than 10 percent of the gruesome daily total over the winter. Hospitals aren’t under any stress. Major population centers are also doing extremely well in terms of average daily cases and positivity:

As is true everywhere else, the great bulk of people who are getting infected are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated:

Of the 123 people in L.A. County confirmed to have been infected with the Delta variant thus far, 110 were unvaccinated and three were partially vaccinated. There were two hospitalizations among people in this group.

Cases involving the variant have been found in 10 fully vaccinated individuals, none of whom ended up needing hospital care.

If you’re vaccinated, you have little to fear from B.1.617. So why are L.A.’s public health bureaucrats urging masks indoors even for those who’ve been immunized? It’s not just that they’re liberals and therefore prone to being extremely risk-averse about COVID, I think. What they’re telling us is that they’re not sure yet whether vaxxed people might be capable of spreading Delta. The word from the CDC is that the vaccinated rarely transmit the virus but Delta is sufficiently new and scarily contagious that they don’t want to make assumptions that it follows the same rules as other strains do. If in fact people who’ve had their shots are capable of transmitting it to the unvaccinated in public spaces then having them mask up is a small precaution that can be taken to reduce new infections.

The jury’s out on whether vaccinated people carrying B.1.617 are infectious to others but there’s at least some evidence floating around out of Singapore that they are:

L.A. County is trying to get ahead of a possible wave in the making by issuing its mask recommendations before there’s evidence of a major problem. One of the early lessons of the pandemic was that you can’t wait until the virus is already circulating widely before taking precautions, as Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio did. The time to be careful is before the surge arrives. This is what they’re trying to avoid:

Yesterday Jen Psaki was asked whether the White House will still be holding a July 4 celebration, with hundreds of military personnel and essential workers attending, despite the risk of Delta. Yep, she said. Biden’s team must realize that after holding out the Fourth for many months as a target date for when Americans might be able to party safely again, to reverse course at the last second with new guidance would leave people furious. It would feel like a bait-and-switch and would be hard to justify with cases, hospitalizations, and deaths as low as they’ve ever been. My guess is that they’re going to bite their lip, hope that the Fourth doesn’t seed a bunch of new outbreaks, then gingerly suggest sometime later next month that it wouldn’t be the worst thing if vaccinated people started masking and avoiding crowds again. Remember that Anthony Fauci already gave the latter advice in a White House video about Delta, only to have the administration excise his comments and memory-hole them. Fauci will probably be giving that advice in earnest, on TV, two weeks from now, I’d guess.