GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Local doctors agree with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that fully vaccinated people should wear masks in certain public indoor settings.
“In order for us to curb the delta variant, we really are going to have to take these kinds of steps,” said Dr. Matthew Denenberg, vice president for medical affairs at Spectrum Health. “It’s very hard to prevent spread to unvaccinated people indoors if we don’t know who’s vaccinated and who’s unvaccinated. The spread in some counties has just gotten dangerously high.”
On Tuesday CDC officials said people who live in places with substantial and high community spread should return to wearing masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. It also endorsed face coverings for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors this school year, after saying earlier this month those inoculated did not need to wear one in the classroom.
“I think what this is is the CDC trying to be a little more nuanced rather than a one-size-fits-all for the entire country,” said Dr. Andrew Jameson, Mercy Health’s division chief of infectious disease. “I think that a lot of people were frustrated because sometimes they would be told, ‘I live in northern Michigan and there’s a big surge down in the Detroit area, but we’re not feeling it here. Why do I have to be held to the same standard that people down there do?’ That’s a reasonable frustration, and I think what this does is this tries to line up with a very standardized number of active infections per certain population.”
The reversal is driven by the more transmissible delta variant. Health experts said while unvaccinated patients make up the majority of infections, new information showed unlike previous strains the level of virus in infected people with the shot is “indistinguishable” from those without it.
According to the CDC’s community transmission map, two thirds of Americans live in a “substantial”- or “high”-level area.
Most of West Michigan falls into its “low” or “moderate” classification. At this time, only Van Buren, Cass, Mason, and Branch counties are subject to the guidance.
The circumstances could change. According to Jameson, the delta variant is just making its way through the area. He says contact tracers first found a few cases two to three weeks ago while investigating an outbreak.
“This virus has shown the ability to outcompete some other strains, and we’re worried that will change quickly,” said Jameson.
Doctors say the best way to avoid it from happening is to get the shot and push the region closer to herd immunity and stop mutations.
“Eighty-three percent of all infections with COVID right now across the country are the delta variant,” said Denenberg. “I think it’s really, really important [to note that] the CDC when they made their original recommendations to allow people… [to] take their masks off, the delta variant was at one percent in the United States.”
Just over 63 percent of Michigan residents 16 years and older have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“This should be an increased motivation to get vaccination,” said Jameson. “We know that the protection is still pretty good. Breakthrough cases are happening higher than with other variants, but the protection is still great and you’re not going to get that sick. My motivation is to get as many people vaccinated as possible.”
The Detroit News reported Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she does not anticipate issuing another pandemic order, like a mask mandate, in light of the guidance. However, Whitmer wore a face covering at an event in Detroit on Tuesday.
“The CDC recommends that everyone wear a mask in indoor public settings during times of substantial or high transmission,” said Lynn Sutfin, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman. “We have made great strides in vaccination rates, but given the presence of the delta variant in Michigan, we remain concerned about the continued increase in COVID-19 cases we are experiencing. The safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine is our best defense against the virus and the way we are going to end this pandemic. MDHHS urges all eligible Michiganders to get vaccinated as soon as possible. To find a vaccine, visit VaccineFinder.org.”