SO MUCH FOR OUR HOT VAX SUMMER  America’s official return to pre-Covid life lasted all of three weeks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly reversed its guidance on mask wearing today. The agency now says that vaccinated people in Covid-19 hotspots should mask up indoors, and sometimes even outdoors, based on new data on the highly contagious Delta variant.

For President Joe Biden, who pledged a “return to normal” on July 4, the CDC’s about-face is a tacit admission that competence alone won’t vanquish the coronavirus.

When his administration took office in the chaotic early days of the nation’s vaccine rollout, it picked the low-hanging fruit by working to streamline vaccine distribution channels and improve communication with governors and other state officials. The federal government set up a network of high-volume vaccine mega-sites across the country and arranged for pharmacies nationwide to give out the shot, helping to boost Covid vaccinations to a daily record of 4.6 million doses on April 10.

A sign advises shoppers to wear masks outside of a store in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles.
A sign advises shoppers to wear masks outside of a store in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. | Marcio Jose Sanchez, File/AP Photo

But the deep partisan split over the pandemic — and the value of the vaccines — has helped to stall the country’s adult vaccination rate at just under 70 percent, the goal Biden hoped to reach by Independence Day. In states like Alabama and Louisiana, where the Delta variant is driving a surge in new infections and hospitalizations, the adult vaccination rate is just over 50 percent.

So, with the pace of inoculations slowed to a crawl, and a new wave of infection building nationwide, the CDC has once again turned to masks to fight the virus. We’re not alone in this: Countries like Israel, Australia and South Korea have reinstated national or regional mask mandates in the face of Delta. It’s yet another sign that Covid-19 is a wily foe, and the fortunes of the vaccinated and unvaccinated are inextricably linked.

Unwilling to revisit the lockdown days of 2020, the White House now appears to be turning to powerful but so far untested tools against the virus. Biden said today that he is considering a vaccine mandate for federal employees — one day after the VA said it would require the shot for any employees who provide direct patient care. “Unlike 2020, we have both the scientific knowledge and the tools to prevent the spread of this disease,” Biden told reporters. “We are not going back” to “the kind of lockdowns, shutdowns, school closures, and disruptions we faced in 2020.”

There’s no way to roll back the clock. But there’s still a way to beat Covid.

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