The Delta Variant

The Delta Variant. It sounds like the title of a bad Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy novel, doesn’t it? And according to the news reports it is lurking out there, ready to pounce, and threatening to propel us into a mask-wearing, social distancing, stay-inside-your-house reprise of what we went through in 2020–like the situation found in Australia, where a Wall Street Journal article recently argued that the governmental COVID responses have returned the Land Down Under to its roots as a nation of prisoners.

Already we’re starting to see signs of what might lie ahead. This week the CDC and the Biden Administration reversed course on mask-wearing, saying even fully vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in places with high COVID transmission rates. Only two months ago, the CDC said fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks indoors. The CDC also recommends that everyone in grade schools–kids, teachers, staff, and visitors,–wear masks even if they are fully vaccinated. And the CDC’s abrupt reversal seems to presage additional policy shifts and concerns coming up. The CNBC article darkly warns: “The updated guidance comes ahead of the fall season, when the highly contagious delta variant is expected to cause another surge in new coronavirus cases and many large employers plan to bring workers back to the office.”

What caused the CDC to change its mind, again? The CNBC article linked above quotes CDC Director Rochelle Walensky as saying the change is based on “new science” and data showing that the delta variant behaves “uniquely differently from past strains of the virus,” suggesting that some vaccinated people “may be contagious and spread the virus to others.” But the description of the rationale sounds very contingent and conditional–and, frankly, perhaps the result of some guesswork. There seems to be healthy disagreement in the medical profession about just how dangerous the delta variant really is. And there definitely is disagreement about how to deal with COVID and kids, as a recent New York magazine article demonstrated.

Here’s the issue, as I see it: our health care experts and politicians don’t seem to realize that their credibility isn’t what it once was. They seem weirdly panicky and overly protective, and willing to reverse course and make sweeping decisions that disrupt the lives of millions on the basis of untested models and supposition, rather than hard science. They also don’t seem to take into account the cost and impact of their suggestions, whether it is the mental health impact of isolating people due to shutdowns, the health effect of breathing through masks for hours on end, or the economic effect of restrictions on activities. And their latest change also undercuts the impetus for the crucial public health initiative of encouraging COVID vaccination. Some who haven’t been vaccinated will reason that if even fully vaccinated people need to wear masks to protect the unvaccinated, what’s the point of vaccination in the first place? And if protecting the unvaccinated is the goal, how long will this latest round of mask-wearing rules last?

It’s obviously not ideal that there is growing distrust of the public health authorities and politicians, but it’s important that those people recognize that the distrust and skepticism and resistance to sweeping edicts exists, and won’t be going away. If autumn brings new calls for lockdowns to deal with the delta variant, the general level of skepticism about the need for that kind of draconian action will be heightened–and I expect that the level of acceptance and compliance among the general population will be affected, too.