The CDC’s new recommendation on masks might have surprised some people. But to medical professionals in the Philadelphia suburbs, it was expected, and they see it as a necessity in this new fight during the pandemic.
“I was pretty certain we were going to get here when they initially deescalated the masking policy,” said Darren Mareiniss, an infectious disease expert in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Einstein Healthcare Network. “I knew it would happen and that’s because they unmasked everybody who is vaccinated, but had no verification system.”
Chief Medical Officer at Crozer Health Gary Zimmer explained since the virus is changing, guidance needs to too. “This is a continuously evolving pandemic… as there is more research that is published and variants that emerge, we have to keep updating,” he said.
The recommendation by the CDC was made due to the rise of the delta variant, which is spiking cases across the country, disproportionately in unvaccinated areas. Luckily, that vulnerability isn’t as much of a threat in the Delaware Valley.
“We have vaccinated much better” than the rest of the country, said Jonathan Stallkamp, interim chief medical officer at Main Line Health. “Hopefully we don’t have as bad of a case rise.”
The CDC’s new guidance applies to counties that it deems have substantial or high risks of spread. When the DV Journal spoke to Stallkamp, all four counties in the region were at moderate risks of spread. He predicted that wouldn’t last long. “I have a strong suspicion we’ll get there in the next couple weeks.”
On Tuesday, new CDC data placed Bucks, Montgomery, and Delaware Counties in the substantial risk of transmission category, meaning the new recommendations now applied to those areas. Chester County remained deemed to have a moderate risk of transmission.
But Mareiniss isn’t a fan of those nuances in the new recommendation.
“It makes it more complicated to follow when you make caveats, when you say, ‘Well in high transmission areas people should mask indoors.’ That makes it confusing… the guidance should have been cleaner, and say you should mask indoors.”
Critics of the CDC guidance say the new recommendation will weaken vaccination efforts, adding it would make vaccine skeptics wonder why to get a shot if it means they still have to follow all the guidance without it. All found that sentiment frustrating.
“We have to make sure our messaging about the vaccine continues to be very consistent and clear, which is that the vaccine has totally changed the course of this pandemic,” said Zimmer. “It is vitally important for everyone to get vaccinated, and whether or not you take your mask off inside is not the reason you should get the vaccine.”
Mareiniss shared similar sentiments, saying those critiques are “missing the point.” He added, “The point of vaccination is not to die and not to be hospitalized. We’re in a society of sound bites and people like the idea that a vaccine means no mask, and that’s why you get the vaccine, but that’s not the motivation. The motivation is so you don’t die or be hospitalized.”
Stallkamp thinks the new variant presents an opportunity to actually speed up vaccination efforts in the area.
“The rate of individuals getting hospitalized from COVID who are fully vaccinated is substantially lower than those who do not, said Stallkamp. “I will beg people to please get vaccinated now so you don’t end up having to see me in one of our hospitals.”
For now, all three counties are reporting no increase in hospitalizations yet. But just as cases are rising in the area, it likely means hospitalization rates will soon follow.
“Typically, you see infections, there’s a delay, then you see hospitalizations, there’s a delay, then you see death,” said Mareiniss, previewing what may be next.
For now, medical professionals are asking residents to “be smart,” in Stallkamp’s view. “Wear your mask, get vaccinated if you’re not vaccinated, encourage your friends and relatives to get vaccinated.”
“If you’re in indoor settings and in close quarters with others, I would consider wearing a mask,” said Zimmer. “It’s a good common-sense tactic. We’ve been doing it a long time and we’re all tired of it, but it’s one of a number of ways to keep the rate of transmission down.”