On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised its guidelines to state that people who have been fully vaccinated need not wear masks in most situations. With new cases of COVID-19 at the lowest level in over a year, and vaccinations now extending to those 12 and over, it seemed perfectly reasonable that President Joe Biden appeared on Thursday afternoon to give a speech that was if not a victory lap, at least a fist pump. Dropping his own mask for the appearance, Biden was clearly pleased about the progress. Vaccines work. They’ve been effective against all the variants that have presented so far. And while the 46% of the country that has received at least one shot isn’t nearly enough to reach “herd immunity,” it is clearly enough to stave off a fourth wave of cases in the U.S.
All of this is absolutely worth at least a few virtual balloons. Only there seems to have been a step omitted: Telling people they can take off their masks if they’ve been fully vaccinated is great, but as policy it means trusting people who have repeatedly proven themselves untrustworthy.
For months there have been people proudly forging vaccination cards. States like Tennessee and Texas have even made it easy for them by publishing the template for the vaccination cards online. For all intents, saying that people who have been fully vaccinated need not wear masks is no different than saying “masks off!” to everyone. And that’s not the formula for driving COVID-19 cases down at the fastest rate.
Again and again, Israel—before it started making the news for something else—was featured in articles noting how completely the pandemic had been driven down and controlled there. After peaking at 8,400 cases a day in mid-January, the seven-day average for new cases in that nation is down to just 33. That’s a 99.6% decrease. And 33 cases is definitely in the range that can be managed by ordering the isolation of individuals and conducting effective case tracing.
But Israel didn’t drop mask requirements until the number of cases per day was far below their current rate in the U.S., even when expressed as a percentage of the population. In fact, Israel was extraordinarily cautious, not dropping even requirements that people wear masks during outdoor activities until just two weeks ago.
In Israel, 63% of the population has been vaccinated. In the U.K., where 53% of the population has been vaccinated, rules for face coverings are still extensive for indoor locations and the advice remains the same: “You need to wear a face covering even if you have been vaccinated.”
The reason for combining both vaccination and masks is that until vaccination reaches a very high level—somewhere well above 70%—both are required to effectively halt community circulation of the virus. It’s masks plus vaccine that are giving these countries a de facto herd immunity. In terms of new cases per million population, the U.K. is down to 39. Israel is at just three.
In the United States the cases per million value is at 120. That’s not horrible. Sweden, still battling both a mix of bad policy and low vaccination rates, is at 379. A pair of South American countries where the P.1 variant is running out of control—Uruguay and French Guiana—are both seeing cases per million that exceed 1,000 (making both good targets for any excess vaccine the U.S. has lying around). And the big “winner” this week would be the islands of the Seychelles, which are currently seeing a gut-punching rate of over 10,000 cases per million people per day, as in 1% of their population being confirmed to have COVID-19 in a single day. (Fortunately, at least some of this appears to be an artifact of how tests were reported, but there’s no doubt the rate in the archipelago is horrendous, with almost all cases being the new, fast-spreading variants out of India.)
In any case … yes, people who have been fully vaccinated are very unlikely to catch COVID-19 and very unlikely to spread COVID-19. Allowing them to remove their masks makes little difference to the overall course of the epidemic in the United States, and if removing masks could be held out as an effective incentive to get vaccinated, the masks-off recommendation could be a net positive.
The problem is there are still a number of people out there who insist that they will not be vaccinated, as well as people who have already gleefully shown that they will falsify the easily duplicated vaccine card. Even more importantly, a number of venues are likely to simply drop mask requirements without bothering to ask for any sort of proof of vaccination. For many stores, restaurants, gyms, and other locations, no masks for the vaccinated will simply mean no masks.
That’s unlikely to bring on disaster—after all, 46% of the population is already vaccinated, nearly 2 million more are getting vaccinated each day, and with the extension of vaccination to those 12-15, there could be a boost in those vaccination rates. Even without masks, a general fourth wave of cases is highly unlikely at this point. But removing the mask requirement will definitely slow the period in which the U.S. drops that new cases per day value from 120 down to 39, or three. And every day of that delay means more people suffering lasting illness and more families losing a loved one.
President Biden ended his Thursday appearance by saying that the rules now are very simple: “Get vaccinated,” said Biden, “or wear a mask until you do.” Let’s hope it really is that simple.
The vaccination good news
For months, Civiqs polling on has told the same story: A large number of Republicans say they have no intention of getting vaccinated. But in just the last two weeks, that graph has finally begun to move. Since the beginning of May, the percentage of Republicans saying they will refuse the vaccine has fallen from 47% to 40%. That final number is still too high, but it’s the lowest value Civiqs has recorded since vaccines became available last year. What’s more, when looking at the other categories, it seems those Republicans didn’t slide into the “unsure” category, or even the “yes, I intend to get vaccinated” column. The big change over that same period, up by 9%, was among Republicans who said they had already been vaccinated.
What changed that finally broke the anti-vax logjam on the right? It’s hard to say. Maybe Republicans finally saw that the millions of Americans who had been vaccinated had neither died nor turned into Gates-worshipping robots. Maybe the CDC authorizing the use of the vaccine for children finally reassured some people that the vaccine was safe. Maybe they figured that if vaccinated people were just going to shed mRNA all over the place, they might as well join in. (And in case it wasn’t clear, at least two of those reasons contain high levels of snark.)
In any case, it seems that something has changed, and The Washington Post says that vaccination sites are seeing that change on the ground. After the rate of vaccination slowed from 3.4 million a day in April to around 2 million in May, the decline appears to have halted. For that same 10-day period when Civiqs showed Republicans finally moving to the “vaccinated” column, the rate of daily vaccinations in the U.S. remained around that 2 million mark.
The Post’s own polling also shows a decline in vaccine skepticism, including among Republicans. Interestingly, their data shows a sharp decrease in Republican hesitation during the pause in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine availability. So perhaps it was exactly how the government reacted to a small number of potential cases of blood clots that gave the vaccine-hesitant reassurance that the CDC really was taking extraordinary care.
Exactly why things have changed isn’t clear. But it does seem like they have, and that’s a very good development.