The new, highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus has LA County public health officials so concerned that they announced Monday night: Wear masks in indoor public settings, even if you’re fully vaccinated.
As the county sequences COVID cases to determine which strain they are, officials say half are coming back as delta. Nationwide, Delta now accounts for about 20% of all infections. The prevalence of the variant jumped from about one in 10 cases to one in five in a week. Those numbers are all according to the LA County Department of Public Health.
Local health officials aren’t making wearing a mask indoors a requirement, but they are strongly recommending it. It’s an about-face from just two weeks ago when California fully reopened the economy, which included dropping mask mandates for the fully vaccinated in most situations.
As we continue to learn about this new strain of the virus, Dr. Veronica Contreras, urgent care physician with AltaMed Health Services, says this latest guidance from LA County is prudent.
“The vaccine does provide a great amount of protection, and we're seeing less hospitalized patients and less deaths. But we don't know how many of the people that do go out to restaurants and go out to movies are vaccinated,” Contreras points out. “People may be going out with cold-like symptoms. We don’t know if they have COVID as well. In order to protect the community, we do recommend that you continue to wear a mask.”
She highlights the increased risk people of color have for getting the virus, especially those who live in multi-generational homes. She says all it takes is one person bringing the illness into the residence for everybody to get infected. By not wearing a mask, she says people are raising their chances of bringing this particularly contagious variant into the household.
The doctor says wearing a mask can also help safeguard children. “We know at this point that we can vaccinate from 12 and up, but those kids that are not vaccinated, we have to continue to protect them.”
As we balance getting back to old habits and practices with a still evolving virus, Contreras believes sporting a mask is both about individual wellbeing and the greater good.
“It is about personal safety,” notes Contreras. “We did find that within LA County, a few people that were completely vaccinated did get the variant but did not end up in the hospital. We have to continue to protect our communities because we all depend on each other, especially the people that work in the grocery stores and those in the health care fields who provide services that we desperately need.”
Additionally, there are some people who are immunocompromised or dealing with certain illnesses that hinder their ability to get inoculated. She suggests covering up for them.
Contreras points out there have been so-called “breakthrough cases” with the delta variant — when somebody fully vaccinated does come down with COVID — but they’ve been mild.
The urgent care physician says she herself is being cautious.
“Personally, I am trying to avoid crowded places, especially if I see that there are many people that are not masked, considering that we don’t know if they are fully vaccinated,” she says.
Looking ahead to the rest of summer, Contreras thinks a fluid, day-by-day approach to COVID guidelines makes the most sense. She says the big focus needs to stay on getting as many people as possible vaccinated because “ultimately that is what is going to make our cases go down.”
Contreras is advocating for a sensible approach that keeps a close eye on the data. For instance, she says if lots of unmasked people are getting together and we see case numbers go up, it might be time to reinforce a mask rule instead of less stringent guidance until cases decline.