CDC explains delta variant, advises masks, but Montana seems cool to the idea

New research says vaccinated people may spread delta variant at the same rate as those unvaccinated

By: - July 30, 2021 3:54 pm

A poster that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued to help fight the spread of COVID (Courtesy CDC).

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issuing new guidelines on masking and research being released by it on Friday that shows already vaccinated people can carry and spread the delta variant as rapidly as those who are not vaccinated, statewide groups are redoubling their efforts for masking and vaccination.

On Friday, the Montana Nurses Association urged all residents – regardless of vaccine status – to get vaccinated and mask-up. That message, shared by the CDC and many other medical organizations, marks a shift from the earlier either-or-mask/vaccine message the CDC had attempted in an effort to get the bulk of the country vaccinated earlier this year.

On Thursday, The Washington Post leaked internal documents from the CDC with new data showing the rise and challenge of the delta variant of the SARS-COV-2 virus. In those documents, it showed that vaccinated people could just as easily spread the disease as those who were not vaccinated. That prompted officials to revert back to messaging of needing both a mask and a vaccine, creating frustration and outrage by some Republican leaders in Congress.

Previously, after COVID-19 vaccines were OK’d for emergency use, the CDC had hoped by relaxing masking it would lead more people to get vaccinated. The CDC has always recommended face masking for those unvaccinated. However, the CDC also bet that people would be willing to get a vaccination and be pushed to it because of the dislike and discomfort of face masking. Instead, the nationwide effort to vaccinate has faltered and efforts to convince the unvaccinated have yielded anemic results. People took off the masks, but didn’t necessarily get the vaccine.

With little to no masking and a more transmissible variant, COVID cases in Montana and across the country have risen.

Among the other new CDC findings are:

  • There was an eight-fold drop in disease among those who were vaccinated versus those were not.
  • There was a 25-fold reduction in hospitalizations between those who were vaccinated and those who were not.
  • There was also a 25-fold reduction in the incidence of death between those who were vaccinated and those who were not.
  • There is an increasing percentage of vaccinated people who are hospitalized, due almost exclusively to the delta variant.
  • Statistics show that vaccines may not absolutely guarantee against a “breakthrough” case, but vaccines are proven to lower the chances of a severe illness and hospitalization.
  • The delta variant spreads more quickly than smallpox, the common cold, Ebola and chickenpox.
  • The delta variant causes more severe disease than other variants.
  • Vaccines still prove highly effective at preventing the disease, even though the numbers appear to be slightly lower than other variants.
  • While the vaccines are still more than 90 percent effective at preventing severe disease, they may be less effective at stopping the spread.

“Given higher transmissibility and current vaccine coverage, universal masking is essential to reduce transmission of the delta variant,” the CDC’s recommendations say in bolded red letters in the report.

As COVID numbers begin to edge higher, state officials have stopped short of re-implementing mask mandates. Unlike a year ago, the decision to put in place any kind of restrictions or changes would now rest with elected county officials instead of the county public health departments. The Legislature also stripped the governor of his power to enact restrictions without the approval of the lawmakers.

On Tuesday, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte told The Associated Press that he did not favor a statewide mask mandate. That was before the new information was reported and released by the CDC.

The governor’s office did not respond to the Daily Montanan’s questions about masking on Friday.

For Riverstone Health, the public health department in Yellowstone County, Montana’s most populous, vaccinations have hovered just slightly below the state average of 48 percent.

Pat Zellar, communications officer for Riverstone, said that they, too, are urging masking in all indoor places where people are gathered, regardless of vaccinations – in other words, following the CDC’s guidelines. In fact, beginning Monday, Zellar said, Riverstone will go back to masks for all employees and visitors.

She said that regardless of where the organization stands, though, changes to Montana law have taken those decisions out of the county health boards and placed them in the hands of the elected county commissioners.

“We have the responsibility to keep people healthy, but they took away our authority to take action,” Zellar said.

In Yellowstone County and in several other counties, the local health departments are a joint collaborative effort between different entities, so it’s even less clear who is in charge. For example, in Yellowstone County, Riverstone is a collaboration of the cities of Laurel and Billings, along with Yellowstone County.

“There are still many legal questions that we don’t have the answers to that will have to be sorted out,” Zellar said.

Denis Pitman is one three commissioners on the all-Republican Yellowstone County commission. He said the COVID pandemic is a day-by-day situation with no playbook, even after a year-and-a-half. He also said Montana has the benefit of usually seeing larger places deal with problems before they make their way to Montana. That gives the state longer to prepare a response, he said.

Even with the changing guidance and the delta variant, he said he supports the measures in place and doesn’t currently see the need for a masking mandate. Instead, he said people already know to stay at home when they don’t feel well, and are also practicing social distancing and hand-washing.

“What I am seeing is that the people who want to wear (a mask) or need to wear one are,” Pitman said. “People are more aware and responsive if they are not feeling well.”

As a licensed mortician, Pitman said he’s been aware of the various changes in approach to the disease, and has practiced the precautions, as well as seen the recent uptick in cases and deaths.

“Right now, I’m not (concerned). We have a lot of open space and we’ve been socially distanced,” Pitman said. “If we start seeing huge spikes, we have the resources to react to that. I’m not sure how effective you can be with mandates. There’s personal responsibility.

“People know for themselves and can decide, and I don’t see people being overly hostile or belligerent about masks either way. The hospitals will be the first ones to feel it and say something to us.”

He said Yellowstone County has a unified command which meets regularly and talks even more frequently. So far, they haven’t requested any mandates, and Pitman doesn’t believe the commission would take any action currently. He also said there’s been no conversations about masks or other measures, even in light of the new reporting from the CDC on COVID.

It’s not just the county boards of health that may be impacted by the new laws, though. The lawmakers also strengthened individual business owners’ ability to regulate their operations. For example, even if the county were to enact more mandates, new laws prohibit any measure that comes between a business and their customer, which may render a move like mandating masks unenforceable or even illegal.

“We’re just asking people to do the right thing, get vaccinated and mask-up,” Zellar said. “We give people information and we understand that it’s frustrating that it keeps changing. But it’s changing because we just didn’t know some of the things we know now.”

Riverstone has continued to hold vaccination clinics throughout the summer in an effort to boost the vaccination rate. The health care organization went to some of the biggest summer events in the Billings area – Symphony in the Park, Summerfair and Reading Rocks.

Most of those clinics pull in a dozen or so people. On the positive side, she said, outreach clinics (those that are taken off Riverstone’s campus) have gotten more than 1,100 people vaccinated from May through July.

After Thursday’s news of the delta variant and masking recommendations, Zellar said she had seen a slight increase at the vaccine clinics.

“We saw an uptick. We had 28 people and that’s great. But we really need about 28,000,” she said.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.