© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People wear masks as cases of the infectious Delta variant of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continue to rise, in Washington Square Park in New York City, USA, July 22. 2021. REUTERS / Brendan McDermid / File Photo
By Joseph Ax and Tim Reid
PRINCETON, NJ / SANTA MONICA, California. (Reuters) – A surge in COVID-19 triggered in parts of the United States by the highly contagious Delta variant and vaccinated vaccinations has led to new mask mandates and deep confusion among some people over which guidance to follow.
In Los Angeles County, leaders have reinstated an indoor mask mandate, even for those who are fully vaccinated. Houston and New Orleans officials also raised coronavirus alert levels this week and told people to mask themselves.
In Florida, however, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday that children will not be required to wear masks at school this fall, arguing that “we need our children to breathe.” Hours later, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters: “If I were a parent in Florida, that would worry me a lot.”
“Everyone is confused about what they should be doing,” said Daniel Blacksheare, a 20-year-old from Santa Monica, California, who said he was infected twice last year. “I don’t understand why we suddenly have to put on a mask again.”
The Los Angeles County sheriff said his department will not enforce the measure.
Contradictory advice from officials at the city, county, state, and federal levels of government comes as hospital officials in the worst-hit states with lower vaccination rates sound the alarm that their systems are overloaded.
The seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases in the United States increased 53% from the previous week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday. The Delta variant accounts for more than 80% of new cases nationwide.
Much of the guidance follows the same political lines as before in the pandemic. Leaders of heavily Republican states generally avoid masks, and Democrats insist on them.
Schools are a particular point of tension at the national level. Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for coronavirus vaccines, and masks are considered by many parents to be the best defense left.
However, as some areas return to the classroom in just a few weeks, there is a wide division over whether children should wear masks in schools.
The American Academy of Pediatrics this week released updated recommendations for schools that included the use of masks for all people over the age of 2, regardless of vaccination status. President Joe Biden said Wednesday that unvaccinated children should wear masks in schools.
But the CDC said Thursday it will not change its mask guide for schools, including that masks are only required for those ages 2 and older who have not been vaccinated. In May, the CDC relaxed its guidance so that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks in most public spaces.
In Princeton, NJ, Ximena Skovron said she finds the disputes over the masks and what the orientation really is puzzling.
“I am vaccinated and the rules seem to change,” she said. “But it’s also inconsistent. There are two grocery stores in town: one requires masks and the other doesn’t.”
Skovron said he doesn’t think states should reimpose mask mandates.
“Vaccines are available. The ability to protect yourself is there,” he said. “If you refuse, you must take the risk rather than impose it on the rest of society.”
Her 6-year-old daughter will enter first grade this fall, and Skovron said she hopes the school will not require masks, citing the extremely low rate of severe COVID-19 incidence among young children.
“It seems like an exaggeration for children to wear masks,” he said.
But Melissa Riccobono, 44, of Lawrenceville, NJ, said she is in favor of the mask and believes there should be mandates when and where necessary.
“If you choose not to vaccinate, that is your choice, and I agree with that, but it is not your decision whether to wear a mask,” he said.
(GRAPHIC: Tracking Vaccines and Coronavirus Outbreaks in the US: https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/USA-TRENDS/dgkvlgkrkpb/index.html)
(GRAPHIC-COVID-19 Vaccination Tracker: https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/vaccination-rollout-and-access/)