Health officials in the United States will on Friday explain the science behind their U-turn on face masks, as Republicans express skepticism over the decision – which appears to have stemmed from research into a July 4 outbreak.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday announced that they were updating their previous guidance to now recommend that vaccinated people wear face masks once more, when indoors and in parts of the country with substantial COVID-19 transmission.
They did not explain their reason for the shift in policy – which has sparked fevered debate – and merely said it was due to new data on the highly contagious Delta variant. On May 13 the American public was told they no longer needed to wear masks indoors if vaccinated.
An internal federal health document obtained by The Washington Post explained the new data, and reported that the Delta variant was as infectious as chickenpox or Ebola – with each infected person passing the virus to eight or nine others, on average. That infectivity is known as R0.
The original lineage was about as transmissible as the common cold, with each infected person passing it to about two others, on average.
CDC Dr Rochelle Walensky has previously noted the rarity of viruses with such high R values, telling CNN: ‘When you think about diseases that have an R0 of eight or nine — there aren’t that many.’
Officials, the document stated, must ‘acknowledge the war has changed.’
The source of the data was unclear but it appeared to have been provided to the Post and the New York Times at the same time – suggesting the possibility of a coordinated leak.
Dr Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, has said that they will publish the science behind their decision, announced on Tuesday, on Friday. The CDC has faced some criticism for announcing new recommendations on face masks without providing the science behind their decision
The slide presentation said that the CDC must improve its messaging on COVID-19, and emphasize the urgency of the situation.
‘I finished reading it significantly more concerned than when I began,’ said Robert Wachter, chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.
Walensky, director of the CDC, said that the new data – to be published on Friday – showed that vaccinated people infected with the Delta variant carry tremendous amounts of the virus in the nose and throat.
Walensky told The New York Times that the data suggest that even fully immunized people can be unwilling vectors for the virus – a change from the previously-held belief that vaccinated people were unlikely to increase the spread of COVID-19.
Walensky privately briefed members of Congress on Thursday, drawing on much of the material in the slide presentation obtained by The Washington Post.
Walensky is pictured on July 20 testifying before Congress. She briefed Congress on the new scientific findings on Thursday, and on Friday will make the results public
‘I think people need to understand that we’re not crying wolf here. This is serious,’ she told CNN.
One of the slides states that there is a higher risk among older age groups for hospitalization and death relative to younger people, regardless of vaccination status.
Another estimates that there are 35,000 symptomatic infections per week among 162 million vaccinated Americans.
The document outlines ‘communication challenges’ fueled by cases in vaccinated people, including concerns from local health departments about whether coronavirus vaccines remain effective and a ‘public convinced vaccines no longer work/booster doses needed.’
The CDC was criticized this week for updating the mask guidance without detailing the science behind it.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Washington Post that their move violated scientific norms.
‘You don’t, when you’re a public health official, want to be saying, ‘Trust us, we know, we can’t tell you how,’ Jamieson said.
‘The scientific norm suggests that when you make a statement based on science, you show the science.
‘And the second mistake is they do not appear to be candid about the extent to which breakthroughs are yielding hospitalizations.’
Joe Biden has been strongly urging people to get vaccinated. On May 13 he celebrated the announcement that face masks were no longer necessary – something critics have seized upon
Kevin McCarthy, the most senior Republican in the House, claimed the House doctor told them the study was conducted in India using a vaccine that was not approved in the U.S.
‘The mask mandate is based upon a study in India, based upon a vaccine that isn”t approved in America that didn’t pass peer review. Could this be a plan to keep our schools closed?’ he asked on Twitter.
The CDC cites research from India on viral loads as adding to global concerns about transmission post-vaccination, but they make clear that other research and additional studies were under way.
McCarthy, however, tweeted a May 13 video of Joe Biden stating: ‘Folks, if you’re fully vaccinated — you no longer need to wear a mask.’
McCarthy captioned the clip: ‘Total hypocrisy.’
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, was asked about the backlash to the new mask mandates, and McCarthy’s anger.
‘He’s such a moron,’ she reportedly said, in a scarcely-audible clip.
Yet at the same time, Democratic-run cities have said they cannot make changes without being in full possession of the facts.
Even officials in Democrat areas were unsure.
Mitchell Katz, president of New York City Health and Hospitals, said at a press conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio that he wanted more information.
‘While the CDC issued their guidance yesterday at about 3 p.m., they have not yet released their scientific reports on the data that underlies their recommendation,’ he said.
He added that his focus remained on getting people vaccinated.
‘I think we owe it to New Yorkers to very carefully, as you say, review that information and understand its implications,’ he said.
The CDC experts have been paying particular attention to an outbreak in Provincetown, on Cape Cod, after the July 4 celebrations.
As of Thursday, 882 people were tied to the Provincetown outbreak.
The popular Cape Cod vacation resort of Provincetown is seen on July 24. The artistic and foodie city drew its usual large crowd for the July 4 weekend, with people believing that fully vaccinated people could not transmit the virus. It is now believed that that is not correct
Dressed as Maxine the Vaccine, Poppy Champlin encourages pedestrians to get vaccinated for COVID-19 while promoting her comedy show on Commercial Street in Provincetown, on July 24
Among those living in Massachusetts, 74 percent of them were fully immunized, ABC News reported, yet officials said the vast majority were also reporting symptoms.
Seven people were reported hospitalized.
Provincetown: How July 4 weekend turned the partygoing playground of New England into the center of a covid cluster
Drawn by its reputation as one of the liveliest places on the East Coast, Providence has stunning beachesy, a glorious harbor and a great place to party.
Throughout the year, it has a population of just under 3,000 which increases to as high as 60,000 during the summer.
Crowds descended on Provincetown over the July 4th weekend and a week later the manager of the Cape Cod beach town said he had been made aware of some positive Covid-19 cases.
Within weeks, the outbreak rapidly grew until, as of Thursday, 882 people were tied to an outbreak in the town, with 74 per cent of those having had both doses of the vaccine. It was reported that seven people were hospitalised, ABC News reported.
Before this, health officials were assuming that it was rare for a vaccinated person to become infected with the virus and, if they were, they probably wouldn’t infect others.
The assumption was based on studies of an earlier virus, and not the new Delta variant, which was first detected in India earlier this year.
It is indicated that this outbreak is among the new evidence behind the decision to make masks compulsory indoors again, even if they have had both doses of the vaccine.
The initial findings of the investigation led by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, in conjunction with the CDC, seemed to have huge implications.
All indications now are that the Provincetown outbreak investigation is among the pieces of new evidence behind the CDC’s decision to ask Americans to once again put on their masks indoors, even if they are vaccinated.
The one glimmer of hope came from Britain, where the Delta variant has wreaked havoc, but is now dramatically slowing down.
Experts hope that this may indicate the U.S. surge could also be over soon.
Last week, the leading British COVID modeler said that the country was ‘almost certain’ to hit 100,000 cases per day, and the U.K.’s daily case count crossed the 50,000 threshold for the first time since January.
Yet since July 20, cases have fallen fast.
From a high of nearly 54,000 on July 17, the daily tally slid to 43,404 last Wednesday; and 28,652 on Sunday.
This Monday, the U.K.’s case count slipped below 25,000 – a 50 percent reduction in a single week.
‘In the United Kingdom, cases are clearly coming down at this point,’ said Dr Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, on Monday.
‘If the U.K. is turning the corner, it’s a pretty good indication that maybe we’re further into this than we think, and maybe we’re two or three weeks away from starting to see our own plateau here in the United States.’
The CDC’s sudden U-turn on masks sparked a political firefight on Capitol Hill as Republicans blasted a new mask mandate in the House of Representatives.
Capitol Police backed down on Thursday and said they would ask people in the House not wearing a face mask to leave after Republican lawmakers blasted a memo that stated such individuals would be arrested.
The agency did not specifically rule out arrests, but did say it should never come to that.
‘Regarding the House mask rule, there is no reason it should ever come to someone being arrested. Anyone who does not follow the rule will be asked to wear a mask or leave the premises. The Department’s requirement for officers to wear masks is for their health and safety,’ US Capitol Police tweeted in a statement.
The statement came after it was revealed officers been ordered to arrest visitors and staff who refuse to wear a mask on the House side of the Capitol complex. The policy did not apply to lawmakers who refuse to wear masks.
Conservative Republican lawmakers gathered in the rotunda to march to the Senate side of Capitol, which does not have a face mask policy
Republicans have protested a new policy to wear face masks in the House, refusing to don them
US Capitol Police backed down on a memo that said staff and visitors not wearing face masks in the House would be arrested
Many Republicans have refused to wear masks, citing it as an issue of personal freedom, criticizing the Capitol physician over implementing a mask policy for the House and not the Senate, and arguing the science means vaccinated individuals shouldn’t have to mask up.
Several staffers and visitors were seen walking around the House side of the Capitol without masks on Thursday but were not arrested.
Additionally, several conservative Republicans gathered in the Capitol Rotunda without wearing face masks to protest the policy. ‘Arrest us,’ one shouted as their maskless staff recorded them to post the event to social media.
No one was arrested.
The GOP lawmakers marched to the Senate side of the Capitol, which does not have a face mask requirement. Nearly 100 per cent of the Senate is vaccinated.
Republican Rep. Thomas Massie told reporters they walked across the Capitol building ‘for a taste of freedom.’
‘You don’t have to wear a mask on the Senate side,’ he pointed out.
Many House Republicans blasted Pelosi for the ‘tyrannical’ directive, but the Democrat’s office responded that she ‘does not control the US Capitol Police.’
The chief of the Capitol Police reports to the three-member Capitol Police board, which is made up of the House sergeant at arms, the Senate sergeant at arms and the architect of the Capitol.
The chief does not answer to the speaker. The mask mandate in the House – which requires everyone, including those fully vaccinated, to wear one – was ordered by the Office of the Attending Physician but Pelosi said she would enforce it, which falls under her purview as speaker.
The controversy on Capitol Hill came the same day that Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced masks will be required indoors throughout the District, including for those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19.