Vivek Murthy foresees mask comeback as delta variant drives jump in cases


The U.S. surgeon general predicted Sunday that surging coronavirus cases would trigger another round of local mask mandates even as Los Angeles County faced pushback on its order requiring facial coverings for the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.

“In areas where there are low numbers of vaccinated people or where cases are rising, it’s very reasonable for counties to take more mitigation measures, like the mask rules that you see coming out in L.A.,” Dr. Vivek Murthy said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I anticipate that will happen in other parts of the country, too.”

In Los Angeles County, however, there are already signs that residents recently freed of their masks may be unwilling to put them back on without a fight.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced that he will not enforce the mandate, which went into effect at 11:59 p.m. Saturday, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s May 13 guidance saying that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks.

“Forcing the vaccinated and those who already contracted COVID-19 to wear masks indoors is not backed by science and contradicts the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines,” said the sheriff in a Friday statement.

Dr. Murthy said that the CDC guidelines still allow local governments to implement their own mask requirements.

“What the CDC did in its guidance, close to two months ago now, is based on the science saying that your risk of getting sick or transmitting the virus was low if you were fully vaccinated,” Dr. Murthy said. “They gave communities and individuals the flexibility to make decisions about what to do with masks.”

As far as former Surgeon General Jerome Adams is concerned, the problem is not the county mask mandate but the CDC guidance, which he called “premature” and “wrong,” based on the recent spike in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious delta variant.

“CDC was well-intended, but the message was misinterpreted, premature, & wrong. Let’s fix it,” Dr. Adams tweeted on Saturday.

Seven San Francisco Bay Area counties advised residents Saturday to wear masks indoors voluntarily, according to KPIX-TV, but count former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb among those skeptical that the Los Angeles County mandate will be widely followed.

“I don’t think it’s the right move. I don’t think you can tell people who have been vaccinated that they have to wear masks,” Mr. Gottlieb said on CNBC. 

“I think quite frankly it’s likely to be the exception. I think you’re likely to see very few states and municipalities do this because there’s not going to be a lot of support for mandates at this point,” he said.

Former Trump administration official Richard Grenell, who heads Fix California, said the Los Angeles County order essentially sends the message that “vaccines don’t work.”

“So we’ve asked the California Supreme Court to stop this mandate for the vaccinated (both naturally and man made),” tweeted Mr. Grenell, referring to his court filing seeking to block the county move.

The mandate has also become fodder for the Sept. 14 recall election. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom was hit with calls from Republicans to override the county order, which comes on the heels of the state’s announcement that K-12 students will be required to wear masks in the 2021-22 academic year.

Republican candidate Caitlyn Jenner dubbed the mandates “Gavin’s shutdown 2.0,” while candidate John Cox said allowing the county to “require masks for vaccinated people is appalling. This needs to stop.”

“Vaccinated individuals don’t need to wear masks, medical experts have made that clear,” tweeted GOP recall candidate Kevin Faulconer. “We need to be reopening our state, not re-imposing unnecessary restrictions. If Gavin Newsom had any common sense, he’d step up and oppose this, that’s what I’ll do as Governor.”

The CDC reported Friday that the rolling seven-day average in new cases jumped to 26,306, a 69.3% increase compared with the previous seven-day average of 15,541, while the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported a four-fold rise in cases from July 4.

The county said the seven-day average case rate has risen from 7.1 to 8.2 cases per 100,000 population, and that the positivity rate had jumped to 3.8% from 0.4% in early June, in what the department called “alarming trends of increased community spread.”

“This is very disturbing and of course as responsible elected officials we have to do something,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis on ABC’s “This Week.” “In this case, the county has the ability to do that through our health order.”

While the delta variant is more contagious than other iterations of the novel coronavirus, evidence that it’s especially deadly or debilitating is mixed at best, according to Yale Medicine. 

Ms. Solis denied Sunday that the masking order was punitive, saying it is needed to counter a spike in cases driven by the delta variant.

“I would say that it’s not punishment, it’s prevention,” she said. “We still have 4 million people out of 10 million that haven’t been vaccinated, and many of them are young people, and we’re seeing that this transmission is so highly contagious that it will cost more in the long run if we have to see our hospitals being impacted.”

Ms. Solis added that “I’m not pleased that we have to go back to using the masks in this manner, but nonetheless it’s going to save lives, and right now that to me is what’s most important.”

At the same time, Ms. Solis said she was unconcerned about the sheriff’s decision not to police the mask order, saying that the public health department typically conducts such inspections and enforces the rules.

“I’m not concerned about that. The public overall is smart enough to understand what is being said and how to protect themselves,” she said.

Referring to last year’s budget cuts, Sheriff Villanueva said the department “will not expend our limited resources and instead ask for voluntary compliance.”

“We encourage the DPH to work collaboratively with the Board of Supervisors and law enforcement to establish mandates that are both achievable and supported by science,” the sheriff said.

Los Angeles radio host Larry Elder, another Republican recall candidate, tweeted that he supported the sheriff “100%!!!”

About 52.6% of Los Angeles County residents are fully vaccinated, about the same as the statewide rate of 52.2%, according to the Los Angeles Times vaccine tracker.

Because the delta variant is so new, scientists are still trying to determine how effective the existing vaccines are against the new strain. However, just 0.09% of the cases in Los Angeles County since vaccinations began in December involved fully vaccinated people.

Despite being “a small percentage, it is not an insignificant number in light of Los Angeles County’s current substantial and increasing community transmission,” said the department.

Those who do decide to don masks should probably upgrade to the N95, given how easily the delta variant spreads, said Mr. Gottlieb.

“Quality of mask is going to make a difference with a variant that spreads more aggressively like delta does, where people are more contagious and exude more virus, and trying to get in N95 masks into the hands of vulnerable individuals in places where this is really epidemic, I think is going to be important,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

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