Debate Continues Across U.S. About Requiring Covid Vaccinations

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A furniture store in San Antonio in May. An executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas bars local governments from requiring masks.
Credit...Christopher Lee for The New York Times
  • July 25, 2021, 9:27 a.m. ET

As the Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads through unvaccinated populations in the United States, many municipalities, colleges and businesses are weighing not only whether to require vaccinations but also whether to reimpose indoor mask mandates.

Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Thursday that her agency had no plans to change the guidance it issued in May. That guidance allowed localities leeway to make their own rules but said that people who were fully vaccinated could shed their masks in most situations. Many Americans — vaccinated or not — did so with relief.

Now, the highly contagious Delta variant and the fear of breakthrough infections, however mild they usually are, have led many individuals to consider covering their faces again.

Nationally, new cases, hospitalizations and deaths remain far below their winter peaks, but there have been steep rises in both cases and hospitalizations in some less vaccinated areas.

Vaccines are effective against the worst outcomes of Covid-19, including cases caused by the Delta variant. But the pace of inoculations has decreased more than 80 percent since mid-April, and less than half of the country is fully vaccinated, according to federal data.

As a result, some cities are turning to masking as an additional precaution. Los Angeles County, one of the first places to reinstate a mask mandate, requires masks to be worn in public indoor spaces regardless of vaccination status. St. Louis announced a similar mask mandate on Friday.

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Many other local health authorities around the country are recommending that people mask indoors, as Philadelphia’s health department did on Thursday. New Orleans announced an “indoor mask advisory” the day before.

Officials in other cities, including New York, have been more reluctant to call for greater mask use. One of the earliest U.S. epicenters of the pandemic, New York logged more than 33,000 deaths connected to the virus, and about two million adults there are still not vaccinated. A statewide mask mandate for vaccinated residents was lifted last month.

But the city’s new reported cases are up 162 percent over the past two weeks, according to a New York Times tracker, and on Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that he might impose a much wider vaccine mandate for city workers, encouraging private employers to do the same.

A day earlier, Mr. de Blasio said that he was not planning to mandate masks, noting that they were already required in many public areas, like schools, hospitals and the subway.

“People need to get vaccinated, period,” Mr. de Blasio said. “Nothing will do what vaccination will do.”

In late June, as U.S. Delta cases began increasing, Dr. Robert Wachter, the chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said he believed that the areas that would need protection most — those with the smallest proportion of full vaccination — might be the least prone to institute precautions.

“What you will see is sort of a bizarre version of what you’re already seeing in some places in the country, where the people who are most likely to wear masks inside are the vaccinated people,” he said. “They need it less than the unvaccinated people, but they’re not confident the unvaccinated people are wearing them.”

Southern states seeing rises in reported infections have steered clear of mask mandates.

In Mississippi, where only 34 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, some hospitals are running out of intensive care capacity because of Covid, the state’s health officer, Dr. Thomas E. Dobbs III, said on Tuesday.

The state recently called for residents 65 and older or with chronic medical conditions to avoid large indoor gatherings, children 12 and older to be vaccinated and for unvaccinated people to wear masks in public, but it stopped short of a mandate.

In Texas, where only 43 percent of residents are fully vaccinated, there has been a 194 percent increase in the number of people testing positive in the last two weeks, according to a New York Times tracker.

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