Plans to return to something like pre-pandemic normalcy in the United States have changed. This Tuesday (27), the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended to Americans vaccinated against Covid-19 to return to wearing protective masks indoors in high-altitude regions at risk of contamination.
The advice was given by CDC director Rochelle Walensky, who announced that in high-risk areas, even fully immune people, who have already taken the second dose of the vaccine, should wear masks indoors. The guideline also applies to teachers and kindergarten children, regardless of region, and was developed after the agency identified rare infections in which fully vaccinated people carry the same amount of the virus as people who have not received the vaccine.
The announcement partially reverses a decision made in May, when President Joe Biden and Walensky, in announcements laden with optimism and nationalism, determined that wearing masks and social distancing would no longer be necessary for fully immune people. in most situations.
At the time, flexibility had been the subject of criticism from some experts, who qualified the measure as premature, the percentage of vaccinated in the country being still too low to justify a concession of this level. Two months later, the number of people vaccinated with at least one dose in the USA is equivalent to 56.43% of the population; those who are fully immune are 48.79%, according to data from the Our World in Data portal, linked to the University of Oxford (UK).
The main reason for the directive change is the delta variant, a mutation of the coronavirus at least 50% more contagious that has become dominant in Europe and tends to predominate globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In the United States, it is no different: in April, 0.6% of Covid-19 cases in the country were caused by the delta; now, according to CDC data, the mutation is responsible for about eight in ten new infections.
For epidemiologist Ethel Maciel, a professor at the Federal University of Espírito Santo, the CDC’s decision in May seemed hasty due to the worsening scenario seen in several other countries, such as India and Brazil, and the possibility that the variants will continue to spread.
“In a respiratory virus pandemic, we will only be safe when there is a situation of control everywhere,” he said. “We have to learn from this experience that in a pandemic there is no point in doing localized strategies while the world is still with an uncontrolled pandemic, because it will [voltar a] somehow reach you. “
The mandatory mask suspension, for Maciel, was also a way to encourage vaccination, showing, in practice, the easing of restrictions for those with immunity – although the rules vary at state and municipal levels. Now, however, the United States has run into major vaccine hesitancy, in part bolstered by the American anti-vaccination movement. In May, the Biden administration still hoped to meet the goal of vaccinating 70% of the population by July 4, the date of American independence.
According to infectologist Carlos Magno Castelo Branco Fortaleza, professor at Unesp (São Paulo State University) and president of the São Paulo Society of Infectology, masks have the advantage of not causing the same social impact and economical than restrictions such as containment.
“These are important barriers for the virus and, best of all, they do not discriminate between variants, they work against all of them and are an excellent complement to the vaccine,” he says. For him, the retreat of the American health authorities “is certainly a lesson against those who claim victory early” – in reference to the British government – “or encourage the non-use” of masks, in the case of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro ( no party).
Unlike two months ago, when even U.S. government officials were notified of the rule change less than a day before the public announcements, there were several indications that health officials across the country could resume mandatory use of masks. in specific circumstances.
Last week, Biden said his pandemic response team was studying the increase in cases and hospitalizations for complications of Covid-19 among unvaccinated people to determine whether mask use should become a rule again. large. .
Anthony Fauci, White House adviser and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last Sunday (25) that the return of the masks was “actively being considered” by the government. He said the United States is “headed in the wrong direction” as new daily cases continue to rise.
The daily moving average of infections has been increasing since early July. Three weeks ago, the country was recording 13,000 new cases per day and as of Monday (26) the average was 57,000 – far from the peak of 250,000 recorded in January, but still an increase of more than 319% on the period. observed.
The number of deaths, on the other hand, has not followed the upward trend. During the whole month of July, there was not a single day when more than 300 deaths were recorded. In January, the United States recorded a record 4,460 deaths in 24 hours; On Monday, there were 271 victims of Covid-19, a drastic reduction in mortality attributed to the advance of vaccination, capable of lowering the incidence of severe cases of the disease.
Experts, however, are not yet in the mood to cheer. Given the current pace of vaccination and the speed at which the virus, driven by the delta variant, has spread across the country, a consortium of US universities – including Johns Hopkins, a benchmark in statistical surveys of the pandemic – issued a series of projections in compliance with the epidemiological situation.
According to the worst-case scenario predicted by the studies, the United States could re-register around 240,000 new cases and 4,000 deaths per day in October. The figure, however, is considered unlikely by researchers.
“We would never come to a worst-case scenario because we would react. We don’t tend to sit around and wait for death,” said Justin Lessler, a professor at the University of North Carolina who is part of the consortium. . , in an interview with the Washington Post.
According to Lessller, the projection on which there is the most consensus within the project estimates a peak of 60,000 daily cases in October. Even these numbers, however, may be below reality, since the data that served as the basis for the projection was collected before the release of the cases related to the delta variant.