More US cities are likely to reimpose mask mandates in the coming months, the US surgeon general has warned, as alarm grows at the top of the Biden administration about the spread of the Covid-19 Delta variant.
Dr Vivek Murthy said on Sunday that other parts of the US will probably have to follow the lead of Los Angeles, which ordered this weekend that people wear masks in indoor public settings regardless of their vaccination status.
The warning reflects the concern among US health officials about the Delta variant, which continues to rip through the UK, despite Britain’s high levels of vaccinations. Covid-19 infections are rising in every state in the US for the first time since January.
Murthy told ABC news on Sunday: “In areas where there are low numbers of vaccinated people or where cases are rising, it’s very reasonable for counties to take more mitigation measures, like the mask rules you see coming out in LA, and I anticipate that will happen in other parts of the country, too.”
He added: “I’m worried that what we’re starting to see increasingly in states like Arkansas and Missouri and Nevada and my home state of Florida and Louisiana, these surges within the unvaccinated population, that we will continue to see that unless we get ahold of this pandemic by getting more people vaccinated.”
Data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the seven-day average of new cases is up 59 per cent since last week, while deaths are up 48 per cent.
Vaccination rates meanwhile have fallen steeply from their peak in April. Where the US was once vaccinating an average of 3.4m people a day, that number is now down to just over 500,000.
Vaccination rates are particularly low in south-eastern states.
Georgia, for example, has now administered at least one dose to just 44 per cent of its population, compared with a national average of 56 per cent. The case rate there has more than doubled in the past two weeks.
Tennessee, which last week stopped its health department sending any vaccine information to children, has administered at least one dose to 43 per cent of its residents. New cases there are up nearly 30 per cent from two weeks ago.
The decline in demand for Covid-19 vaccines has alarmed Joe Biden, the US president, who on Friday accused Facebook of “killing people” by not doing more to tackle vaccine misinformation on its platform.
Murthy said on Sunday that the White House could ask social media companies to change their algorithms to halt the spread of anti-vaccine material. He said: “The algorithms on these sites — which serve up information again and again to people [so] that sometimes it reinforces misinformation — are also places where we can ask those companies to make changes.”
Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic chair of the Senate antitrust subcommittee, said the spread of misinformation further bolstered the case of those who want to break up large technology companies.
She told CNN on Sunday: “They have gobbled up so many companies that you don’t even have the chance of having other social media companies to [provide accurate information].”
Facebook did not respond to a request to comment.
As individual counties consider tightening their Covid-related restrictions, the CDC has come under fire for its decision two months ago to drop the recommendation that even vaccinated people should wear masks indoors.
Jerome Adams, who was surgeon-general at the beginning of the pandemic, tweeted on Saturday: “CDC was well intended, but the message was misinterpreted, premature, & wrong. Let’s fix it.”
Murthy defended the guidelines, saying individual states and counties still had the power to impose their own restrictions.