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Yesterday the CDC recommended that vaccinated individuals wear masks indoors in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Here are some stats:

About 56000 people per day are diagnosed with COVID-19 nationwide.

Buncombe County has just over 50% of our population vaccinated and about 5% of tests for COVID-19 are returning positive.

Haywood and Madison counties have slightly less people vaccinated, and about 10% of tests there are positive.

Henderson County is about 50% vaccinated and 5.8% of the tests are positive.

A huge majority of positive cases are in the unvaccinated and breakthrough infections (infections in vaccinated persons) are still rare. The CDC issued new guidance that vaccinated persons should wear masks indoors in areas where there are 50 new infections per 100,000 residents or more than 8% of tests returning positive. They also recommended that vaccinated persons who have children in their home under the age of 12 or an immune compromised person, wear masks indoors.

Why do we need to wear a mask indoors if we are vaccinated?

The recommendations are largely in response to new science that is emerging. That data, however, is in a small sample size of individuals being studied in Israel, where Pfizer is doing booster vaccine trials. The data demonstrates two main concerns. The first is that the Delta variant is more contagious and dangerous, leading to more infections and hospitalizations. The second important aspect of this data, shows that our immunity is waning after about 7 months, leaving us more vulnerable to infection. This means that our antibody levels are dropping over time. We know that the vaccine still prevents serious disease and death in over 85% of people, but it is possible for a vaccinated person to get the Delta variant and carry it to another person. It is much less likely, however in a vaccinated person than an unvaccinated person. Masks are being recommended indoors to prevent vaccinated persons from getting COVID-19 and spreading COVID-19, especially to the more vulnerable persons in our neighborhoods and homes, the elderly, the immune compromised, and children under 12. Children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated. Children are twice as likely to be hospitalized from the Delta variant as they were from the alpha variant, pointing to its virulence.

The Delta variant is simply more contagious and makes people sicker than the variants that have proceeded it. It is normal for a virus to mutate. Sometimes mutations make a virus less powerful, but sometimes, the virus adapts to infect more hosts (the people or animals that carry and spread the virus). The Delta variant is an example of a more virulent strain. The CDC states we are to assume it is the predominant strain in the US currently.

How are hospital systems responding to the Delta variant? How are they protecting their patients?

The federal government has issued vaccine mandates for all VA healthcare workers nationwide to prevent spread from healthcare workers to vulnerable patients. We have seen a similar trend in hospital systems, including the Duke Lifepoint systems and UNC Health systems.  To this date, neither HCA, Haywood, nor Pardee Hospital systems have issued vaccine mandates for its employees leaving patients vulnerable to infection from healthcare workers who refuse vaccination.  

The question remains, how will we stop this deadly pandemic?

We will stop this pandemic by vaccinating more people, and potentially by offering booster vaccines in the future. The CDC had not yet recommended booster vaccines but the idea is being discussed and evaluated. It is possible booster vaccines, which have greater efficacy against the Delta variant, would be offered first to older persons and those who are immune compromised. This remains to be seen.

COVID-19 vaccine continues to be available in Buncombe and the surrounding counties daily. The vaccine is safe and effective at preventing severe disease and I recommend it whole heartedly. The county does not collect social security numbers when vaccinating. Vaccines are free to all. We will not end this pandemic until we have immunity to this virus and currently the best way to achieve that is through vaccination and mask mandates.

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