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OPINION

Confusion and timidity rise along with new COVID-19 cases

The Delta variant isn’t the only pandemic threat. Indecision at the White House and CDC is also risking lives.

Anti-vaccine rally protesters hold signs outside of Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, on June 26.
Anti-vaccine rally protesters hold signs outside of Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, on June 26.MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP via Getty Images

With the highly transmissible Delta variant now dominant nationwide, new COVID-19 cases are averaging about 55,000 a day, up from 12,000 last month. In the past two weeks, hospitalizations soared, and deaths increased more than 10 percent. For a host of reasons, more than half of the country remains unvaccinated.

This perilous moment demands decisiveness and clarity. Instead, there’s too much dithering and reticence among those charged with protecting us.

In new guidelines released Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s message on mask usage remains murky. At least this part seems clear: The CDC recommends universal masking for K-12 students, teachers, staff, and visitors expected to return to schools in the fall, regardless of vaccination status. But here’s where confusion remains — Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, now advises mask use “in public, indoor settings” for the fully vaccinated “in areas with substantial and high transmission” rates.

Why not just recommend masks in all public indoor settings nationwide? This is little more than a vague tweak to Walensky’s guidance in May that lifted most indoor mask requirements for the fully vaccinated. Those unvaccinated were expected to keep masking up and abide by what Walensky called “the honor system,” as if we haven’t witnessed the lethally selfish behavior displayed by so many for more than a year.

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Especially in states that voted for the vaccinated Donald Trump, that callous behavior continued as limits on public gatherings disappeared. Florida, Texas, and Missouri currently account for about 40 percent of new daily cases, but every part of the country is struggling to contain this latest surge without enough federal guidance.

Regarding the current outbreak, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said that President Biden “favors using the CDC as his North Star and what the health and medical experts are going to advise on how to save more lives and protect people.” She did not directly answer a question on whether there should be “restrictions on unvaccinated people.”

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Still, the Biden administration is already making some changes. On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to mandate that its frontline health care workers must be vaccinated within two months. The administration is also weighing a possible vaccine mandate for all federal employees, who would otherwise face regular testing.

Other cities and states also aren’t waiting for CDC officials to make up their minds about mandates.

In New York, all municipal employees must be vaccinated by Sept. 13 or face weekly coronavirus testing. In California, all state employees and many health care workers will be expected to adhere to similar regulations. What’s happening is obvious: Local officials, private businesses, colleges and universities are moving to thwart a pandemic that exploits official dawdling and human stupidity. This “pandemic of the unvaccinated” is a threat to all regardless of vaccination status and sets the scene for even more deadly variants that could prove resistant to the vaccines.

When vaccination rates were more robust in May, CDC officials seemed to cave to public pressures to drop indoor mask requirements for the vaccinated, though Walensky claimed she was guided only by science. After Biden addressed a joint session of Congress two weeks earlier, Dr. Leana Wen, a CNN medical analyst, said that seeing those in attendance adhering to pandemic protocols even though they were vaccinated sent the wrong message about vaccine efficacy. She chided the CDC for its “overly-cautious guidelines.”

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“Already, a very damaging narrative is taking hold: If the vaccines are so effective, then why so many precautions for the fully vaccinated?” Wen wrote in a Washington Post column. “What’s the point of getting inoculated if not much changes?”

I don’t know about anyone else, but I didn’t get vaccinated to avoid wearing a mask. I got vaccinated to avoid serious illness or death. (And with breakthrough cases seemingly more prevalent, a lot of us never stopped wearing masks.)

Beginning next month, millions of children under age 12 and not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations are expected to return to their classrooms. Many workers will walk back into offices that have stood mostly empty and silent since March 2020. Federal officials should endorse a vaccine mandate to protect lives. Yes, masks remain necessary but with this deadly variant, the CDC’s recommendations shouldn’t stop there.

Every effort must be made to reverse a dismal spiral that Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, said has America “going in the wrong direction.” Lotteries and other incentives haven’t worked. A vaccine mandate, which would be as unpopular for some as it is necessary for all, will.

Under the Trump administration, federal response to the pandemic was sabotaged by incompetence and indifference costing this nation dearly in ways we’re still trying to calculate and comprehend. In contrast, Biden’s serious response to COVID-19 has been welcome and commendable. Yet there remains no room for indecision or timidity against this latest iteration of a virus that refuses to recede into our rearview.

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Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.