Opinion | Get Vaccinated. Get Masked. It’s the Only Way Out of This.

Credit…Jordan Gale for The New York Times

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By The Editorial Board

The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.

The United States is firmly entrenched in another coronavirus surge, and it seems that many leaders around the country still have not learned the most important lesson of the past 18 months: It takes quick, decisive action and clear communication to get ahead of this virus. Temporary restrictions now are the only way to avoid more stringent ones down the line. We know that masks work. That vaccines work. That mandates work. To keep schools, restaurants and other businesses and institutions open — and to bring the Delta variant to heel — communities will need to use all of those tools together.

To be clear, the Delta surge is poised to be less severe than previous surges in the United States. Thanks to a largely successful vaccination campaign, roughly half the population, including 80 percent of seniors, are fully inoculated against the virus this time around. That means in most places, even accounting for a very small portion of “breakthrough” infections among vaccinated people, hospitalization rates and death tolls are not likely to be anywhere near as high.

But when it comes to the coronavirus, any surge is bad: The longer the virus spreads, the greater its chances of evolving in ways that make it more transmissible, or more deadly, or that render existing vaccines impotent. The surest way to avoid that dreaded outcome is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as humanly possible. And the fastest way to do that now — after months of concerted effort to persuade the wary and reach the disenfranchised — is with vaccine mandates.

Some 93 million people who are eligible for the shots have yet to receive any. Surveys suggest, and experts believe, that a good portion of those holdouts would get vaccinated if they were made to, by their employers or schools, or if it were required for certain activities, like traveling, attending cultural events or dining out.

The power of federal officials to issue a national vaccine mandate is questionable at best. (It has never been tested, but most legal scholars say it would not withstand court challenges.) But a 1905 Supreme Court decision made clear that individual states can indeed require people to get vaccinated. State and local officials have made regular use of that power in the century since — among other things, requiring children to get vaccinated against a roster of other diseases to attend public school.

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