It was a mistake to lift the mask mandate in May when the coronavirus was still circulating and so many people remained unvaccinated.
And that error is going to cost us because there’s no going back — not on a voluntary basis, anyway — despite the fact that wearing masks and social distancing again is likely the only hope for controlling the current surge of the highly infectious delta variant around the country and in our own community.
The CDC announced May 13 that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks or social distance. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told us.
“We have all longed for this moment,” Walensky rightly observed.
We sure did. Who likes wearing masks? No one. The masks, the social distancing, the shutdowns, the economic pain. Every minute of it was awful and it couldn’t be over soon enough. So people rejoiced and most ditched those face coverings in a New York minute — including the unvaccinated, contrary to the revised guidance.
Before long, the vast majority of people were not wearing masks, even though on May 13, more than 60% of the country was not vaccinated. In fact, as of May 13, only 40.4% of New Yorkers and 40.6% of Suffolk residents were fully vaccinated.
And by then, vaccination rates had largely plateaued. Once, COVID vaccination appointments were harder to score than tickets to a Lady Gaga concert. By May 13, mass vaccination sites in New York had so few “customers” they were accepting walk-ins.
Indeed, the new CDC guidance was reportedly intended to provide an incentive for the unvaccinated to get their shots. But that backfired. Almost nobody was requiring any kind of proof of vaccination as a prerequisite to entering a building or place of business. It was all left to the honor system. And that was a very bad idea.
Many people who are opposed to taking the vaccine are also vehemently opposed to wearing masks. They see the mask mandate — along with many other pandemic restrictions — as an infringement of their civil liberties.
So there we were. Rather like sitting ducks. Again.
At that point, the delta variant accounted for just 3% of coronavirus infections in the U.S., according to the CDC. The variant (B.117.2)
But also at that point, the delta variant was absolutely devastating India. The variant was first identified in India in October. It rapidly overtook all other variants of the virus, became prevalent and deadly in a country that was largely unvaccinated.
In the week before the CDC lifted the mask mandate, India reported a record 414,188 new cases in a single day. Hospitals were overwhelmed. In April, India saw 7 million new cases and 48,000 deaths. (COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. peaked a year earlier, in April 2020, when 59,185 people died of the disease, according to the CDC.)
To recap: When the CDC director proclaimed the moment we’d all longed for had arrived, the delta variant had decimated unvaccinated India. Sixty percent of the U.S. population remained unvaccinated; and the delta variant — a more infectious, rapidly spreading variant — was already responsible for 3% of U.S. infections.
The writing was on the wall. In fact, 80% of epidemiologists surveyed by the New York Times in the two weeks before the CDC’s May 13 announcement thought Americans would need to wear masks in public indoor places for at least another year.
The writing was on the wall. Why couldn’t the CDC read it?
Despite these facts and the opinion of health experts, the governor of New York — the state that bore the brunt of the pandemic in its early days, a state that should know better — rapidly followed the CDC’s lead.
Mind you, this was deemed a responsible course of action by a governor who, to this day, whines loudly that the Trump administration never “told” New York the virus was coming into the U.S. from Europe in the spring of 2020. The virus was already overwhelming Italy, but somehow New York’s public health officials — or maybe just the governor — couldn’t read the writing on the wall for themselves and needed the federal government to tell them the Big Apple was in for it.
Throughout the crisis, the governor criticized the former President for playing politics with public health — all while he, too, was playing the same game. In 2021, the governor, now mired in scandal and political crises of his own making, sees his political future is on the rocks. In May, the wrongheaded CDC guidance provided a convenient cover. Now, the facts and the science he claims to follow clearly point to the need for a new mask mandate for all. But that would be intensely controversial and would provide his Republican, anti-mask political opponents with more ammunition. More concerned about his political future than the health and safety of the people, the governor, all of a sudden, is all about local self-determination.
Without a state mandate, people aren’t going to voluntarily mask up again. You can see that all around town, in stores, restaurants and government buildings.
You remember the “second wave,” right? As cold weather arrived and people spent time indoors and the holiday season got under way, infections spiked. Between Halloween and a week after New Year’s Day, confirmed COVID cases rose 113% in Suffolk County, from 49,650 on Oct. 31 to 105,587 on Jan. 8. In Riverhead Town, they rose 140% in that same time period, from 888 cases on Oct. 31 to 2,128 on Jan. 8.
On July 31, 2020 — well before the second wave, which killed more than 10,500 New Yorkers — there were 753 confirmed new cases reported by the state. The percent-positive rate was under 1%.
On July 31, 2021, New York State reported 3,050 confirmed new cases. The statewide percent-positive rate was 2.6%.
Winter is coming. The prevalent strain of the virus now circulating in our country, our state and our community is much more contagious than the virus strain we were dealing with last year. (Delta is now responsible for 83% of new COVID infections in the U.S., up from 3% of new infections in mid-May, when CDC said we could un-mask.)
Although the delta variant is causing more “breakthrough” infections than previous strains, unvaccinated people are far more likely to be infected by this very contagious strain of the virus. And unvaccinated people who are infected represent 97% of COVID hospitalizations.
Right now, more than 44% of the state’s population is unvaccinated. That’s more than 8.5 million people. In Suffolk, 43% are unvaccinated — roughly 645,000. That’s according to the state’s own data. So, when the governor boasts 75% of New Yorker’s are vaccinated, read the fine print and you’ll learn 72% of adults 18 and older have had at least one dose. Only 55.6% of all residents have completed their vaccine series.
Vaccinated people who become infected can easily spread this strain of the virus to others, even though they themselves may have only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. They may not even know they’re infected. That’s why the CDC reversed its May guidance and said last week vaccinated people should wear masks again.
We all have whiplash. But the facts of what’s going on with this virus right now, and where we stand compared to a year ago, are what they are. The writing is on the wall. And it’s not exactly hieroglyphics.
If you’re not vaccinated yet, please protect yourself and your family and take the shot.
And mask up in indoor public spaces, regardless of your vaccination status or political affiliation. Wearing a mask isn’t going to kill you. Not wearing a mask could kill someone else.
The more this pernicious virus is allowed to freely circulate, the more it will mutate. And the more it mutates, the greater the odds that a more “successful” variant will evolve that is both more deadly and more contagious and more resistant to the vaccines. That’s how nature works. And it will work against us if we let it.
Support local journalism.
Now more than ever, the survival of quality local journalism depends on your support. Our community faces unprecedented economic disruption, and the future of many small businesses are under threat, including our own. It takes time and resources to provide this service. We are a small family-owned operation, and we will do everything in our power to keep it going. But today more than ever before, we will depend on your support to continue. Support RiverheadLOCAL today. You rely on us to stay informed and we depend on you to make our work possible.