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In a Reversal, CDC Says People In COVID Surge Areas Should Still Wear Masks

July 27, 2021 by Dan McCue
The headquarters for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. (AP Photo/ Ron Harris)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday afternoon said fully vaccinated people should now wear face masks if they live or work in a location experiencing a surge in delta variant cases.

The new guidance effectively reverses a recommendation from May, when the CDC said fully vaccinated people did not need to wear masks, except in a few circumstances.

That guidance led to a national sense of normalcy for the first half of the summer, and particularly on the July 4th holiday.

Now, the CDC says fully vaccinated people should wear face masks in public, indoor settings in those parts of the country that have experienced a substantial or high level of transmission of the delta variant of COVID-19.

During a conference call with reporters, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the change was needed because new data suggests vaccinated people could transmit the virus to others on “rare occasions.”

“This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations,” Walensky said.

The new guidance follows recent decisions in Los Angeles and St. Louis to revert to indoor mask mandates amid a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that have been especially bad in the South and West.

The CDC also said all adults and students should wear masks in K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status.

The U.S. is currently averaging more than 57,000 cases a day and 24,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Most new infections in the U.S. continue to be among unvaccinated people. But “breakthrough” infections, which generally cause milder illness, can occur in vaccinated people. 

When earlier strains of the virus predominated, infected vaccinated people were found to have low levels of virus and were deemed unlikely to spread the virus much, Walensky said.

But with the delta variant, the level of virus in infected, vaccinated people is “indistinguishable” from the level of virus in the noses and throats of unvaccinated people, she said.

Shortly after the CDC update, President Joe Biden described the new recommendation as “another step on our journey to defeating this virus.”

“I hope all Americans who live in the areas covered by the CDC guidance will follow it; I certainly will when I travel to these areas,” the president said.

“Today, the CDC also reaffirmed that we can safely reopen schools this fall—full time. Masking students is inconvenient, I know, but will allow them to learn and be with their classmates with the best available protection,” he added.

“Most importantly, today’s announcement also makes clear that the most important protection we have against the Delta variant is to get vaccinated. Although most U.S. adults are vaccinated, too many are not. While we have seen an increase in vaccinations in recent days, we still need to do better,” Biden said.

The president also said he will lay out “next steps” Thursday in regard to the administration’s efforts to get more Americans vaccinated. 

This afternoon, in addition to its other announcements, the CDC classified Washington, D.C. as having a substantial level of community transmission of the COVID variant.

Biden responded to that development by saying he is considering requiring all federal workers to get coronavirus vaccine as the delta variant surges.

“It’s under consideration right now, but if you’re not vaccinated, you’re not nearly as smart as I thought you were,” he told reporters.

In advance of the next guidance from the administration, the White House Correspondants Association on Tuesday reimposed its own mask requirement for all indoor spaces at the White House.

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