Delta variant: WHO urges vaccinated people to still wear masks, distance

The World Health Organization urged vaccinated people around the world to continue to "be appropriately cautious" when it comes to the transmission of COVID-19, especially the rising delta variant. 

The delta variant has been found in at least 85 countries since its inception in India, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press briefing Friday. He added that the lack of vaccine in poor countries was exacerbating the variant's transmission, which is believed to happen more easily due to a mutation that makes it better at latching onto cells in our bodies.

In the U.S., where 45% of the total population is fully vaccinated, the B.1.617.2 strain already accounts for more than 20% of new COVID-19 infections, doubling in just two weeks, the CDC said on June 22. 

Other countries are seeing much higher infection rates, such as the United Kingdom where the variant is now responsible for 90% of all new infections. 

And in Africa, where at least 20 countries are facing a devastating resurgence, the variant has been detected in at least 14 of those countries. Africa’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director believes the variant "may have played a very significant role" in the latest wave of infection. 

Now, WHO officials are pleading for a more equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and for those who have been vaccinated to remain "appropriately cautious" as the variant continues to take over. 

"We still live in a world that is only partially vaccinated that has a lot of susceptibility, a lot of vulnerability. What we’re saying is, once you’ve been fully vaccinated, continue to play it safe," said Dr. Bruce Aylward during the organization’s news briefing

"I think the first message we want to be careful about is saying is that once you’re vaccinated you can just go ahead and do whatever. Yes, you can reduce some measures - and different countries have different recommendations in that regard - but there’s still the need for caution," he continued.

In the U.S., CDC guidelines state that fully vaccinated individuals can resume activities that they did prior to the pandemic without wearing a mask or physically distancing unless it’s required in your area by state or local law. 

But some WHO officials suggested Friday that those who are fully vaccinated continue to take precautions. 

"As we’re seeing, new variants are emerging and you have to continue to be appropriately cautious," Aylward said.

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WHO official Dr. Mariangela Simao echoed his sentiment. 

"As we have been saying, vaccine alone won’t stop the community transmission and we need to ensure people follow public health measures. People need to continue to use masks consistently, be in ventilated spaces, hand hygiene ... the physical distance, avoid crowding," she said. "This still continues to be extremely important even if you’re vaccinated when you have community transmission ongoing."

As of June 26, the CDC said the community transmission rate in the U.S. is "moderate," though some regional areas may be seeing higher spread depending on safety guidelines and vaccination rates. 

Several states have already dropped all COVID-19 safety measures amid growing vaccination rates. 

FOX Television Stations has reached out to the CDC for comment on WHO's statements. 

Meanwhile, WHO officials also said Friday the global community was failing at equitably distributing the vaccine. 

As border restrictions and other public health measures are loosened across Europe, the U.S. and in other countries with high vaccination rates, WHO officials warned this could lead to a resurgence of the disease.

"The problem is lack of access to vaccines and that’s causing a two-track pandemic," said Tedros. "Those who have vaccines are getting better significantly and they’re opening up their society. Those who don’t have vaccines are facing serious COVID situations with serious surges in cases and deaths due to COVID."

Critically, only 1% of the continent’s 1.3 billion people have been vaccinated, according to WHO and the CDC. 

COVAX, the U.N.-backed effort aiming to distribute vaccines to poor countries, has missed several targets to share COVID-19 shots, and its biggest supplier is not expected to export any vaccines until the end of the year. 

The hundreds of millions of doses promised by countries including Britain, the U.S. and others are not likely to arrive anytime soon.

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"The problem is lack of vaccines. It’s not delivery, it’s not a problem in absorption by and large ... it’s not hesitancy. It’s lack of vaccines. And the situation in many countries, in low-income countries, especially in Africa, it’s very worrisome," Tedros continued. "The difference is between the haves and the have nots, which is now completely exposing the unfairness of our world."

"The global situation is incredibly fragile," said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on COVID-19. Van Kerkhove said that while transmission is dropping in Europe, there are numerous events — from large sporting events to backyard barbeques — that all have consequences for disease spread.

"The delta variant, the virus, will continue to evolve," she added. "Right now our public health and social measures work, our vaccines work, our diagnostics work, our therapeutics work. But there may be a time where this virus evolves and these countermeasures don’t."

This story was reported from Detroit. The Associated Press contributed.