Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this week rightly defended the CDC's advice that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear face masks as a safeguard against COVID-19 in most situations. The World Health Organization (WHO), by contrast, says people should continue to cover their faces in public, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated.
"People cannot feel safe just because they had the two doses," Mariangela Simao, the WHO's assistant director-general for access to medicines and health products, told reporters last Friday. "Vaccine alone won't stop community transmission. People need to continue to use masks consistently."
The WHO's position is that any risk of infection, no matter how tiny, justifies continued mask use. But as Walensky notes, vaccines are highly effective at preventing mild cases and asymptomatic infection as well as severe cases and deaths. In the rare cases where vaccinated people are infected, the viral load tends to be low, meaning they are less likely to transmit COVID-19. And the evidence indicates that vaccines provide similar protection against newer, more contagious variants of the virus.
Vaccinated people are "really quite protected from the variants that we have circulating here in the United States," Walensky said on NBC's Today show. "We know that the WHO has to make guidelines and provide information to the world. Right now, we know as we look across the globe that less than 15 percent of people around the world have been vaccinated, and many of those people have only received one dose of a two-dose vaccine. There are places around the world that are surging, and so as the WHO makes those recommendations, they do so in that context."
In the United States, by comparison, two-thirds of the adult population is at least partly vaccinated, and 58 percent is fully vaccinated, according to data collected by The New York Times. The seven-day average of daily new cases, per Worldometer's numbers, has fallen by 95 percent since mid-January, from more than 255,000 to fewer than 14,000. The seven-day average of daily deaths, 254 as of yesterday, is down 93 percent.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is nevertheless aping the WHO's advice. "To be extra safe," it says, "it is strongly recommended that you wear masks indoors in public places when you don't know everyone's vaccination status regardless of your vaccination status." In a press release on Monday, the department cited "increase[d] circulation of the highly transmissible Delta variant" as the reason it "strongly recommends everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks indoors in public places as a precautionary measure."
The health department concedes that "fully vaccinated people appear to be well protected from infections with Delta variants," although "people with only one vaccine dose of Pfizer or Moderna are not as well-protected." It notes that "the smaller number of COVID-19 infections identified in people who are fully vaccinated have been mild illnesses."
In Los Angeles County, according to the health department's numbers, 68 percent of residents 16 or older and 87 percent of residents 65 or older, who face the highest risk of severe illness and death, have been at least partly vaccinated. The full vaccination rates are 59 percent and 76 percent, respectively. Newly identified cases and daily deaths in L.A. County have fallen precipitously since January. Statewide, the seven-day average of daily new cases is down 97 percent since mid-January, and the seven-day average of daily deaths, 32 as of yesterday, has fallen by 94 percent.
While you can always be "extra safe," there is a cost to every precaution, and vaccinated Californians might reasonably conclude that the inconvenience and discomfort of wearing face masks is not worth the theoretical benefit. The risk that a vaccinated person will be infected was already very low, and it becomes steadily lower as the number of carriers dwindles and the number of vaccinated people rises. The risk that a vaccinated person who defies the odds by becoming infected will transmit the virus to others is likewise low and falling.
Even the CDC says vaccinated people should continue to wear masks when it is legally required. Federal regulation of transportation is the most conspicuous example. But those rules make as much sense as L.A. County's dubious advice—even less in the context of air travel, where the risk of virus transmission has always been low, even when no one was vaccinated. Thanks to the high ventilation standards on commercial aircraft, an airplane is probably the safest indoor environment that most people commonly encounter. The number of COVID-19 cases tied to air travel was tiny even at the height of the pandemic. Since verifying vaccination is perfectly feasible, there is no rational reason for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to continue requiring that vaccinated passengers wear masks.
That rule, which the TSA recently extended until mid-September, is supported by the unions representing pilots and flight attendants. "We understand that masks are a way we keep ourselves and each other safe," says Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, "and we're grateful policymakers are backing us up." If Nelson and her colleagues are vaccinated, their fear of infection is irrational. And if they are not vaccinated, they have some explaining to do, given their eagerness to foist their scientifically dubious notion of safety on others. Airlines tell passengers the mask requirement is for their own protection, which is nonsense, while simultaneously warning them that disobedience will invite stern consequences.
The unions counterintuitively argue that the TSA rule helps prevent onboard conflict. To the contrary, the indiscriminate face mask requirement continues to provoke arguments, which occasionally turn violent, and quiet resentment among many other passengers who keep their objections to themselves lest they be accused of breaking the law by defying the TSA's arbitrary edict. "The Federal Aviation Administration has documented more than 3,000 reports of unruly passengers on flights so far this year," the Times reports, "and 2,350 of those cases have been tied to mask-wearing disputes."
Seemingly oblivious to its own role in making passengers "unruly," the TSA is moving decisively to address the problem. Last week it announced "the commencement of Crew Member Self-Defense (CMSD) training," which had been interrupted by COVID-19 restrictions. "With unruly passenger incidents on the rise," the TSA said, it "remains committed to equip flight crews with another tool to keep our skies safe."