Delta variant prompts Los Angeles indoor mask policy, but not in Michigan

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Just as mask mandates have been relaxed in Michigan and nationwide, at least one major U.S. municipality is heeding new guidance from the World Health Organization that advises even vaccinated people to continue to mask up indoors. 

But Michigan is not advising such a mask policy yet, and a University of Michigan expert said vaccination remains the key to fighting COVID-19 and its variants.

The WHO has advised that even fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors and follow other safety precautions to stop the global spread of the Delta variant, a highly contagious new strain of the COVID-19 virus. 

Anna Hashisaka of Novi is given the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by public health nurse Sue Martinez at a drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination site inside fire station number one in West Bloomfield Township, April 5, 2021.

Los Angeles County last week "strongly" advised that people wear masks indoors, whether they're vaccinated or not.  

Michigan's broadest remaining restrictions on masks and indoor gatherings were officially lifted by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on June 22, 15 months into the pandemic. The state has no immediate plans to walk that back, said Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

"There is no longer a statewide requirement to wear a face mask in most settings; however, local health departments, establishments, sports organizers and school districts may have additional rules that must be followed," Sutfin said.

"MDHHS has provided recommendations on situations where individuals, regardless of vaccination status, should continue to wear face masks," she added.

"This includes outdoor congregate settings where a COVID-19 outbreak is underway; classrooms; while participating in indoor contact sports; residential care facilities; indoor congregate settings, including jails, prisons, migrant worker housing, homeless shelters, childcare institutions; and healthcare facilities."

Michigan health officials will continue to review and update the guidance as the pandemic evolves around the country, Sutfin added.

"We continue to urge all eligible Michiganders to get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they are able," she said.

The WHO's announcement puts it at odds with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which stands by guidance the CDC issued in May, saying fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks in both indoor and outdoor settings after two weeks have passed since their final dose of vaccine.

Both the CDC and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services require that unvaccinated people age 12 and up continue to wear masks. The federal Food and Drug Administration has not authorized a COVID-19 vaccine for children age 11 or younger. 

Mask wearing helps the unvaccinated, but the unvaccinated tend to be those who don't wear masks, said Arnold Monto, a professor in the UM's Department of Epidemiology and School of Public Health. It remains an individual's decision as well as one for the workplace and shopping locations, he said. People may want to wear a mask in a crowded situation where they don't know if others are vaccinated, he said.

“Variants are always going to be a concern, but we really can manage them," Monto said, adding that vaccinations are the best protection.

Monto is the acting chair of the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee that recommended the Food and Drug Administration give emergency authorization for the use of the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccines.

The Alpha strain, or B.1.1.7 variant that emerged in the United Kingdom, is currently the dominant strain in Michigan, with 12,730 cases through Thursday. 

COVID-19 cases caused by the Delta variant stood at 52 as of Thursday, according to state health department data.

Officials were "terribly worried" initially about the Alpha variant because it was more contagious, but there is no evidence that it produced severe illness, Monto said.

The Delta variant seems to be more transmissible and may be less susceptible to the vaccines, especially if an individual only has one dose, he said. But fully vaccinated individuals are unlikely to have problems, he said.

"But the good news is that the vaccine still prevents disease and probably severe disease very effectively," Monto said.

Other variant infections have increased as well. Michigan has confirmed 301 cases of the P.1, or Gamma variant that originated in Brazil. And there have been three confirmed cases of B.1.427 variant, and 231 cases of the B.1.429 strain, strains that were first identified in California, and together are named the the Epsilon variant.

The Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma and Epsilon variants have all been classified as "variants of concern" by the CDC. Variants have been given letter names from the Greek Alphabet since June 2, when the World Health Organization announced the new naming system in an effort to avoid stigmatizing the countries where strains originate.

There are likely to be COVID flare-ups as Michigan and the rest of the country head into the colder season, Monto said. "I hope we're OK during the summer," he said.

But the situation with COVID will be as much related to the vaccine rate in an area as the variants involved, Monto said. 

“COVID is not going to go away, and the key issue right now is we’re got vaccines that are better than we could have imagined," he said. "And the way to keep from getting sick and the way to keep the variants from evolving is by getting vaccinated.”