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What the latest CDC guidance on the delta variant and masking means — and doesn’t mean — for Minnesota

While data do show greater risk of transmission for the delta variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, vaccines remain an effective protection against the disease.

In recent weeks, Minnesota has seen delta cases grow to represent three in four confirmed cases of COVID-19.
In recent weeks, Minnesota has seen delta cases grow to represent three in four confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Courtesy of Intermountain Health/Handout via REUTERS

As more and more Minnesotans have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in recent months, many have resumed activities forsaken for more than a year — eating inside a restaurant, hugging friends and family or traveling, maybe even on an airplane — with reasonable certainty they would not get COVID-19.

Then, last Thursday, came news that shook that confidence for some: An internal CDC slide deck suggested the delta variant was more transmissible than earlier strains, and that vaccinated people may also be able to spread the virus.

“The delta variant is as contagious as chickenpox and may be spread by vaccinated people as easily as the unvaccinated, an internal CDC report said,” tweeted the New York Times.

Reports on the CDC slides have been criticized as obscuring what the data do show: that while delta poses additional concerns, it still caused very few cases among vaccinated people, and even fewer cases of requiring hospitalization.

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And while the delta variant factored into new CDC guidance on wearing masks in counties with high or substantial COVID-19 transmission, officials say it is not the time to panic.

“This is not something that needs to just stop everybody in their tracks, particularly if they’re lower risk,” Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a press call Monday, reiterating the importance of getting vaccinated, which remains the best defense against getting COVID-19, hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

Concerns over delta

On Friday, the CDC published the data that partly prompted its new guidance on masking in high-spread areas. A study of cases surrounding early July activities in the Provincetown, Massachusetts area, turned up 469 confirmed COVID-19 cases: 346 of them in people who were fully vaccinated against COVID-19; 274 of them were symptomatic. Of these cases, five people were hospitalized; four of them had been fully vaccinated.

The study found viral loads in the samples from some of the vaccinated people who tested positive were similar to those who were unvaccinated, prompting concern that vaccinated people may be able to readily spread the virus, too.

While they acknowledged the risks posed by delta and recommended further prevention strategies in places with high COVID-19 transmission, the authors of the study acknowledged the study was not able to assess the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines against the delta variant.

In Minnesota

In recent weeks, Minnesota has seen delta cases grow to represent three in four confirmed cases of COVID-19. Additionally, the number of cases in the state has risen rapidly — half of cases confirmed in the last two months were identified in the past two weeks, Malcolm said Monday. Hospitalizations have increased, too.

But both confirmed cases and hospitalizations are being driven by unvaccinated people, Malcolm said, calling breakthrough cases “extremely rare.”

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Of 4,477 breakthrough cases — affecting less than 1 percent of vaccinated people in the state — confirmed in Minnesota to date, 455 people have been hospitalized, representing 0.016 percent of vaccinated people, and 56 have died, representing 0.002 percent of vaccinated people, Malcolm said.

“Getting vaccinated as soon as you are eligible is the single best thing you can do to protect yourself, your family and your community,” Malcolm said.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm
As of Monday, 44 Minnesota counties were at “substantial” or “high” levels of COVID-19 spread, prompting CDC recommendations that people wear masks in indoor public settings, whether vaccinated or not. In light of the CDC recommendations, Target announced it would require staff members to wear masks in substantial or high-spread areas, and strongly recommend them for customers. The University of Minnesota announced masks will be required on campus.

Malcolm said Minnesotans who are vaccinated and trying to assess the safety of activities they want to do should consider their personal risk level and the risk of those around them, reiterating that masks, distance and being outdoors where air is circulating better are all ways to lower risk.

“The higher the risk situation for a community at large or for certain populations, the more value there is in layering on those extra layers of protection,” she said.