Late Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed course on its public health recommendations for COVID-19, now saying that even those who are fully vaccinated against the virus should resume wearing masks indoors in certain settings. The public health agency also advised that children returning to school should wear masks.
The news is disheartening and disappointing.
It also can seem a bit confusing. It was the CDC that advised back in the spring that those who had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer needed to wear masks in group settings or indoors. This change now leaves state and local school officials with a tough decision on a topic that was controversial and highly emotional for many over the 2020-21 school year.
Before instinctively dismissing the CDC’s latest advice, either out of distrust or because the agency has changed its guidance so many times over the past 18 months, it’s important to consider why the change occurred.
First, the delta variant of COVID-19 that is responsible for many of the new cases in the United States hadn’t been identified when the CDC rendered its guidance in the spring. The CDC also made its recommendation based on the wide availability of vaccines for the eligible population.
Governors in some states misused that guidance to lift all public health restrictions regarding masks, whether people were vaccinated or not. Vaccine hesitancy and misinformation, along with the unfathomable politicization of the issue, has stalled vaccination rates. Those who were going to get vaccinated did. Those who weren’t didn’t, and still haven’t. Looking at the numbers, this is as clear in West Virginia as it is anywhere else.
Faced with a new variant, rising case numbers across the country and flagging vaccination rates, the CDC issued its new guidance.
This is a novel virus. It’s not a hurricane or a flood or some other one-time disaster. It’s an ongoing situation that changes, forcing public health officials to adopt new policies and recommendations. Bear in mind, the entire end scenario of the pandemic was based on the race to develop vaccines. What can public health experts do when prevention is offered but not taken?
Now, another school year is getting ready to start and the end to the pandemic seems somehow no closer than it did at the same time in 2020. Will there be more protests of masks? More chants of “Let them play?” West Virginians will see in the days ahead. But this state, and many others, had the opportunity to avoid a repeat of 2020 and seemingly threw it away.