NASHVILLE, TN– Four days in a row last week new cases of COVID-19 topped 20,000 in the U.S. The last time that happened was in May 2021 except this time it’s the Delta variant that is now the most common form of the disease in the U.S., India, and in the U.K.
The Delta variant is a mutation of the original COVID-19 virus, aka Alpha, but it spreads 225% faster than the original. In a study published last week, Chinese researchers reported that on average people infected with the Delta variant carry 1000 times more copies of the virus inside their respiratory tracts than the original Alpha strain. In short, Delta is much more contagious and it is more likely to spread and spread quickly.
The Delta variant is spreading fast in Missouri (29.9%), Colorado (12.2%) and New Jersey (10.2%). In Tennessee, Delta variant cases rose from 24 to 125 between June 24 and July 8. Gene sequencing of virus samples identifies the variant but that can take up to five weeks. So the reported numbers are less than reality.
The World Health Organization (WHO) advised that people, regardless of their vaccination status, should continue to wear masks. The CDC says fully vaccinated people can largely forgo masks.
In April Governor Bill Lee ended statewide public health orders, including mask mandates in 89 counties, including Davidson County. He said COVID-19 was no longer an emergency but a “managed public health issue”.
The Biden administration is sending mixed messages: on one hand the President and the First Lady are urging people to take the jab but on the other the CDC is saying that once you do, you don’t have bother wearing those pesky masks any longer.
“I think CDC is wrong here. I think it’s too narrow-focused on self protection when so many people are not vaccinated,” said Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist. Feigl-Ding was on the faculty and did research at Harvard Medical School and is now Senior Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington D.C.
“The CDC’s own studies show that masks help, especially if you double mask because the cloth mask itself is more of a source control as in the source of the spray or the aerosols. The cloth masks mostly help but it’s not good for inhalation,” he said.
Feigl-Ding said that the big question is whether vaccinated people should still wear masks. He noted that studies in Singapore found that vaccinated people can still transmit the virus.
“If you double mask, two cloth masks or cloth mask and a regular surgical mask, it makes a huge difference in the reduction of the aerosol inhaled by someone,” he said.
Wearing a mask protects the wearer but also other people. Half the country is now vaccinated but in some states and counties, the vaccination rate is less than 30%. Herd immunity is still a long way off.
“One dose is not enough. With two doses we’re talking numbers in the 70s (%) for total infection and that’s not good enough because it will allow the virus to keep spreading,“ Feigl-Ding said.
“Masking is the one piece of guidance that actually is quite effective,” said Dr. Ben Neuman. He is Chief Virologist at the Global Health Research Complex at Texas A&M University.
Neuman said hand sanitizer, wearing Plexiglas shields, and one way in and out of a room are much less effective than wearing a mask.
“With masking you are trying to reduce 99% to 100% of the infections. With all these other measures combined you are probably chasing between 0%-1% of infections. It’s puzzling why people do the one thing that doesn’t work rather than the thing that does,” Neuman said.
Dr. Jose Perez is the Chief Medical Officer at South Central Family Health Center in Los Angeles. He said browbeating people to get vaccinated or wear masks is the wrong approach.
“Yes, it is a nuisance if you can’t see somebody smile, you can’t see when someone is angry at you. You miss all those social cues but the benefit is that you will prevent one or two or a thousand deaths,” Perez said.
Schools will reopen soon
With guidance but no mandated prevention measures in place, we could, and probably will, see another wave of infections.
“The CDC said ‘yes you can go back to school based on local transmission’. That’s an abdication of responsibility and the precautionary principle,” Feigl-Ding said.
Kids transmit the virus to their parents. And he noted that once mask mandates were lifted in Denmark, Israel, and Scotland cases immediately increased.
“One in 12 children get long COVID, one in 7 adults, and that is an unacceptable statistic,” he said.
Children who get long COVID could have development problems for years. There is federal money for air filters and UV disinfection in schools but in red states like Tennessee, officials are not spending enough.
“Those are the best things in the absence of vaccination but if you let it spread it will mutate…the only way to stop it is a mutation-free approach which is ventilation, masks, and those things combined with vaccination are what will stop it, not just relying on vaccination alone,” he said.
“There are solutions. Just abdicating it all and saying masks are not required, vaccinations among teachers are not required, air disinfection and air cleaning and ventilation is not required, testing not required. ‘Oh let’ just see what the local cases are’––that is not good public health,” Feigl-Ding said.
Perez, who has practiced in his LA clinic for 15 years, said that the pandemic will end someday but nobody knows how many will die before it’s over.
“Get vaccinated. It’s not a political thing. We’ve had experience with vaccines. There is no smallpox anymore; there are very few cases of polio. Get vaccinated and wear a mask and you will be happy for it and, you know, you will save lives in the process and it could be your parents, your children, your neighbor. Protect your own community,” Perez said.
Unfortunately, getting vaccinated is a political thing in Tennessee. The state’s top vaccine official was fired Monday, July 12. Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health, was let go with no explanation.
Fiscus said she was fired to appease state lawmakers angry about the department’s efforts to vaccinate teenagers. That’s all the more reason to take matters into your own hands.