Dr. William Powderly, a professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine and director of the school's Division of Infectious Diseases, said masks are needed in the St. Louis region because not enough people have been vaccinated and a lot of virus is circulating in the community.
The delta variant of the coronavirus, which accounts for most cases in the Midwest, is estimated to be about twice as contagious as the first variants that circulated in the U.S.
"The fundamental answer to this, to get us out of this mess, is to get everybody vaccinated," Powderly said. But, he added, "when you have that many people who are not being vaccinated and you have rampant spread of a virus ... what else can we do?"
In St. Louis County, which has one of the higher vaccination rates in the state, 52% of the population has received at least one dose, according to state data. In the city of St. Louis, the first-dose rate is 42% — the same level as southwest Missouri's Greene County, home to Springfield.
With 48% of the statewide population having at least one dose, Missouri lags behind the national rate of 57%, according to the CDC.
Dr. Steven Lawrence, a Washington University infectious disease specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, said he understands people's frustration with masks, but the current levels of vaccination are not enough to keep the region's case rates from climbing. Mask mandates, he said, are less disruptive than social distancing requirements, or lockdowns.
"This is a surge," Lawrence said. "We are at a point where we need to act."
(Joel Currier of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.)
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