Medical Examiner

What to Make of L.A.’s Mask Mandate

Are face coverings really coming back?

a woman with a face mask putting her face in her hands
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Masks are back in Los Angeles. As of Saturday, everyone will be required to wear them indoors, regardless of vaccination status, per a county mandate. Coronavirus cases there haven’t been this high since March, with the Delta variant accounting for a large portion (71 percent of the cases sequenced from June 27 to July 3, according to the county).

But even with the rising cases and the high Delta proportion, this is not so much a variant problem as it is a get-people-vaccinated problem. “While emerging data affirms that fully vaccinated people are well protected from severe infections with Delta variants, people with only one vaccine are not as well-protected, and there is evidence that a very small number of fully vaccinated individuals can become infected and may be able to infect others” a press release from the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health explains. Public health officials are still looking at the spread of this virus from a population-level. They’re working to protect folks who are immunocompromised, and may have lower or no immunity from the vaccine, as well as kids, who can’t be vaccinated yet. Their conclusion right now is that the numbers in L.A. call for more action.

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The mask mandate doesn’t mean vaccines are less effective than we thought. Vaccines are still very good at stopping the spread of the virus. They are also very good at protecting you if you do get the virus. While breakthrough infections can happen, they are rare, often asymptomatic, and almost never result in a severe case of the disease—even factoring in the Delta variant. “You are just as likely to be killed by a meteorite as die from Covid after a vaccine,” one doctor said in an interview with CNBC news in late June. In other words, you should not read L.A.’s mask mandate as a reversal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance this spring that if you are vaccinated, you don’t have to wear a mask or social distance, even indoors.

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The problem is mostly that right now, we have vaccinated and unvaccinated people interacting in the same spaces. In an ideal world, you’d be able to screen people for vaccination status, and have them mask up if they aren’t. But vaccine passports aren’t just politically contentious, they are technically difficult to implement. Many private businesses are already asking unvaccinated folks to mask up—it’s just tough to know if that advice is actually being followed, and it’s tougher still to enforce.

COVID-wise, there are currently “two Americas,” as Peter Aldhous at BuzzFeed News warned. In vaccinated America, cases are low, COVID is typically an asymptomatic infection or a cold. In unvaccinated America, that’s not true. And in many places, like LA, those two separate Americas are not actually physically separate places—and those who cannot get vaccinated or are vulnerable to the virus for whatever reason are stuck in between. And so, as long as vaccination rates remain stalled, we’re all at risk of getting dragged back into having to mask up, and maybe more, because no one knows who is vaccinated and who isn’t and it’s the simplest way to do something to try to contain the virus when it peeks up enough to require containing.

Whether the CDC should advise everyone in the country to mask back up indoors, or if masking should remain a choice made at the local level in response to local case counts, is currently a matter of debate. But one thing is clear: We shouldn’t throw out our masks just yet.

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