With Delta Rising, New Rules On Masks And Vaccines

12:06 minutes

three teen students in a classroom all wearing masks. in the foreground a black girl looks at her phone
Credit: Shutterstock

This story is a part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.

This week, the CDC released new guidelines for mask use in the U.S., just months after many cities and towns relaxed mask mandates. The guidance says that “to reduce their risk of becoming infected with the Delta variant and potentially spreading it to others: CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people wear a mask in public indoor settings if they are in an area of substantial or high transmission.” 

Right now, many parts of the country fall under that category. In response to the guidance, several municipalities re-instituted mask mandates for their communities.    

This week New York chose to require either COVID-19 vaccination or weekly testing for public employees. Other municipalities have also announced vaccine requirements—and some private companies, including Facebook, have also indicated that vaccination will be required for employment.

Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins guest host Roxanne Khamsi to talk about the new rules and other stories from the week in science, including studies of clouds and climate change, Olympic psychology, and caffeinated bees.  

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Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Segment Transcript

ROXANNE KHAMSI: This is Science Friday. I’m Roxanne Khamsi. I’m a long-time science journalist. And I’m happy to be filling in for Ira this week. Later in the hour, how viruses hang around longer than we thought in our bodies. And rethinking disaster response. But first, we’ll dive into some major science updates on COVID-19. This week, the CDC released new guidelines for mask use in the US just months after many municipalities relaxed their mask mandates. That’s as health officials now recognize that the Delta variant may be far more transmissible than the original sars-cov-2 strain from the start of the pandemic. Joining me now to talk about the new guidance in how to interpret it is Sophie Bushwick, an editor at Scientific American. Welcome back to Science Friday.


ROXANNE KHAMSI: So Sophie, this wasn’t really a surprise to anyone, and not really pleasant news. There’s been a return of mask guidance. Can you tell us about that?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. With the Delta variant driving COVID numbers back up, the CDC has changed its mask recommendations again. And it’s now saying that in areas with significant to high COVID spread, everyone, even vaccinated people, should mask up in public indoor spaces. They’ve also said that everyone in schools should be wearing masks. And if you live with someone who’s immunocompromised or an unvaccinated child, it’s also good to be masked, even if you’ve already received your vaccine. For context, when we’re talking about an area with significant or high COVID spread, at the moment, that’s a category that covers about 2/3 of all counties in the US.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: And some communities are reinstating mask mandates to go along with that guidance, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: A lot of this depends on where you are. So for example, in Nevada on a state level, and in Kansas City, Missouri on a city level, they’ve reestablished mask mandates. But there are certain states who are saying they’re not going to have them. So Arizona, Pennsylvania, South Carolina. They’ve all said that they’re not going to reestablish mask mandates in those states.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: That’s definitely a different landscape depending on where you are. In related news, some municipalities and private companies even are moving to require vaccination. Is that something that we hadn’t seen before for COVID?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: There had been a reluctance to require people to get vaccinated. And when the vaccines first became available, a lot of people were voluntarily getting their jabs. But as that rate has ticked down and as the rate of coronavirus transmission has ticked up, over just this past week we’ve seen a lot of government and private organizations saying, look, we’re serious now. Vaccines are required. So Google and Facebook are going to be requiring vaccinations. New York City is saying that all city workers have to either get vaccinated or get tested weekly for the virus.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has said that it’s going to require frontline health care workers to get vaccinated. And in fact, Biden just has said that small and medium-sized businesses are going to get reimbursed if they allow employees and families time off to get vaccinated. So one of the big things that might prevent someone from getting vaccinated is that they simply don’t have time to go get their shot. So hopefully, this will also help.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: It seems like a real change is happening. But at the same time, are there places where this isn’t the case?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. There has been some pushback against requiring any vaccine requirements at all. So there’s been five states who previously have passed legislation that bars businesses from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations. So even if a private company wants to force its employees to get vaccinated, it cannot do that. And that’s in Tennessee, Arkansas, Utah, North Dakota, and Montana. And in Texas just this week, Governor Abbott signed an executive order that says that entities that receive state funds cannot establish vaccine requirements.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: You know, this is all very concerning. And in other concerning news, there’s a troubling story from France this week about a couple of lab workers being infected with prions from their research. Can you tell us about that?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s correct. A prion is a type of protein that can make the regular proteins in the brain start folding abnormally. And so these diseases, they seem scary because they caused this progressive loss of brain function and often are fatal. The most common prion disease we see in humans is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob. And this is a disease that two French researchers who work with prions have developed in the past couple of years. And one of the scary things about it is that it incubates for a long time.

So the case that we understand better, a lab worker pricked her finger through her two layers of latex gloves back in 2010, and then she died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob 10 years later at only 33 years old. What’s happened most recently is another lab worker has been diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob. And so public research institutions in France have said, look, we’re going to set up a three month moratorium on any prion research until we can get to the bottom of what happened here and possibly set up new safety protocols to prevent this from happening again.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: And it seems like there’s still a little bit of mystery about whether the second case is truly from the lab. Is that right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. The first case, they are much more positive that it’s from the lab first because of the researcher just remembering this incident where she pricked her finger. But also she had virulent Creutzfeldt-Jakob, which is a version of the disease that previously had been caused by eating beef that had a bovine form of prion disease. But that outbreak had ended in 2000. And that variant had virtually disappeared outside of the lab. So the chance that she had coincidentally also gotten that disease was negligible or nonexistent.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So the government has basically shut down this type of research for the time being, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: And it’s because this is such a nefarious illness, as you describe?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So Creutzfeldt-Jakob, because it attacks proteins in the brain, you lose brain function. You lose mobility. It’s a very devastating disease. And it ends in death. And the fact that the researcher who we know contracted it in 2010 lived 10 years not sure whether she was going to get this disease or not. It’s just a very devastating illness.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yeah. It sounds like it. Now moving away from infectious disease and looking to the sky, there’s new research this week about modeling clouds and how they fit into global warming estimates. Can you tell us about that?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So clouds can have different effects depending on what type of cloud you’ve got, what the local climate is, how much of the sky they cover. And they’re also very difficult to model. So a cloud is made up of all these little individual water drops. So if you’re trying to model cloud cover across the whole globe, that would require just an astronomical computing power. So we just have to use simpler simulations.

And previously, researchers knew that cloud cover was going to affect the final numbers for global warming and should be included in models. But they were just very difficult to get accurate estimates on. So the question is, were they going to exacerbate global warming by a great deal? Were they going to have a negligible effect? Were they going to maybe mitigate? It was still unknown. But then in the past couple of months, multiple studies have come out all looking at cloud cover and its effect on global warming.

And a lot of these– now that we have more advanced machine learning models, machine learning is kind of stepping into the breach and helping figure out cloud behavior and model clouds in a way that doesn’t eat up tons of data, but also is more accurate. And what the studies are finding is that change in clouds will probably speed up global warming and make it worse. But they won’t be doing it to an extreme worst case scenario level. It won’t be as devastating as some previous models had suggested it might be.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well going from clouds to crowds, we’ve all been watching the Olympics. And one of the things that really stands out is the empty arenas. You have a story this week about how that is affecting athletes psychologically.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. We’ve seen throughout the pandemic sports events have these empty stadiums. And in some cases, they’ve sort of compensated by putting cutouts of audience members or celebrities out there. But at the Olympics, we’re really seeing empty arenas. And for an elite athlete who prepares to perform in front of a crowd who might be doing visualization exercises where they walk themselves through a routine step by step while imagining the roar of the crowd in the background, to suddenly switch to this quiet, empty space can really damage them psychologically and have an impact on their performance.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Wow. I mean, I think that that’s something that we’re definitely noticing. And it’s interesting to know how this is all affecting them from a psychological point of view.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. Because in some cases this is the opposite of how it might affect like you or me. I think that if I had a crowd of people screaming in the background while I was doing the day’s work, I would do a terrible job. But at an elite level, what athletes have prepared themselves for that. And many of them actually feed off the energy of the crowd.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, speaking about changing your mental state, let’s talk about caffeine. I mean, what week would be complete without caffeinated bees?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. Caffeine gives us a buzz. And it turns out that bees are no different. And this isn’t just a fun, buzzy story. Bees are essential to agriculture. You know, they pollinate billions of crops every year, plants like peppers, and strawberries, and cucumbers. And a lot of those bees are easily distracted. So they’re supposed to be on farm fields pollinating these crops. But they might go off to the side and go into the wild flowers and not do their job as efficiently as maybe farmers would like.

So researchers have now found that feeding these bees caffeine while exposing them to a target scent helps them stay focused and perform better. And they tested this out using robot flowers. They gave two different groups of bees either caffeinated sugar water or regular sugar water. And they exposed them to the scent of strawberry flowers. And the idea is that bees who are exposed to that priming scent will then go seek out those blossoms. But when they let the bees loose, they let them loose in a field of fake robot flowers that sort of let out puffs of smell.

So either it was a puff of strawberry smell or a puff of a distracting smell. And the caffeinated bees went right to the target about 70% of the time. And the ones that had only gotten plain sugar water only did that about 60% of the time. And then the other thing is that when you had caffeine, the bees, their pace increased. They went faster as they went from flower to flower, which could be a sign of enhanced motor skills from the cup of Joe.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: And the idea is that we might be able to harness this caffeine buzz to like train bees to go after the things we want them to do to help pollinate the stuff that we’re interested in?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So if you’re using a bee in a field full of avocados, you could give your bees some caffeine and a puff of avocado scent, and that would sort of prepare them to go and seek out their avocados and pollinate those.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, that’s quite fascinating. And I think it’s a good reason to enjoy that extra cup of coffee each day because we might be priming our brains similarly.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I hope so because I’m already a caffeine addict. So I hope that it’s helping me as much as it helps the bees.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Amazing. Sophie Bushwick is a technology editor at Scientific American in New York. Thanks for being with me today.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thanks for having me.

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About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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Roxanne Khamsi is a science writer based in Montreal, Quebec.

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