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Internal CDC report sheds light on COVID-19 Delta variant, recommends 'universal masking'

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

As the global pandemic and the fight against it continues, the battleground appears to be in a constant state of flux. Mutations in the coronavirus, particularly the COVID-19 Delta variant, have proven to be a formidable foe for the scientists and government officials working around the clock to keep Americans healthy and safe. And a recently released document from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) confirms the challenges associated with combating the changing virus.

In early July, the CDC produced an internal report, originally obtained by the Washington Post, offering an in-depth look at how the virus has evolved since the start of the pandemic. The document also presents new scientific research on the virus and charts infection, recovery, and vaccination-related data.

And the report was not a rosy one.

“I finished reading it significantly more concerned than when I began,” said Robert Wachter, chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.

Wachther was referring to alarming new data in the report concerning the Delta variant's transmission rate and vaccine efficacy.

According to the CDC's research, the Delta variant is as contagious as chickenpox and causes more severe illness than other, earlier COVID-19 variants. Additionally, the report found that fully vaccinated individuals with breakthrough infections carry similar levels of the virus in the throat and nose, and may spread the virus at similar rates as un-vaccinated individuals.

The report relies on data from several studies, including an analysis of a recent outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts where 74 percent were of those infected with the Delta variant were vaccinated, according to local health officials.

The data in the report was so alarming that the agency significantly revised health guidance for vaccinated people, calling for "universal masking," especially when indoors. The guidance and findings represent a major reversal for the CDC and call into question the popular narrative that un-vaccinated individuals are primarily responsible for the continued spread of the coronavirus' Delta variant.

CDC director, Dr. Rachel Walensky, acknowledged the grim news in a series of televised and print interviews and had to walk-back earlier statements the agency had made about COVID vaccine efficacy and the frequency of breakthrough infections—which many federal officials had previously described as being "rare."

“The delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us and to be an opportunist in areas where we have not shown a fortified response against it,” said Walensky.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation's most prominent voices on COVID guidance and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also weighed in on the bombshell revelations from the report, affirming its findings.

“Vaccinated people are transmitting it, and the extent is unclear, but there’s no doubt they’re transmitting it,” Fauci said. “People who are vaccinated, even when they’re asymptomatic, can transmit the virus.”

Fauci is currently facing backlash for allegedly lying to Congress about "gain of function" research funded by the National Institute of Health at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. He originally told Congress members that the NIH had never funded coronavirus research at the lab but recently released documents show that the NIH did fund such research there.

The conflicting narratives from federal officials alongside the ever-changing mask and social distancing guidelines have created a communications problem between the government and the public. And the CDC's July report acknowledges as much. Several of the slides in the report outline "communications challenges," including concerns from local health departments who have expressed doubt about vaccine efficacy as well as doubt from a “public convinced vaccines no longer work/booster doses needed.”

“We’ve done a great job of telling the public these are miracle vaccines,” said Matthew Seeger, a risk communication expert at Wayne State University in Detroit. “We have probably fallen a little into the trap of over-reassurance, which is one of the challenges of any crisis communication circumstance.”

Despite their ever-evolving messaging to the public, the CDC maintains that the organization is committed to ending the pandemic. That commitment is arguably reflected in the agency's most recent recommendation for universal masking, which both the public and private sectors have adopted with speed. Several state and local governments have already implemented mask mandates. Schools and businesses are also following suit.

Undoubtedly, the nation is ready for the pandemic to end, but trust in the institutions that are built to protect the health and safety of the public will be essential to realizing a post-pandemic world.

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