Faced with a surge in coronavirus cases driven by the fast-spreading delta variant, U.S. health officials said fully vaccinated people should go back to wearing masks indoors in places where infections are soaring.
Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a call with reporters on Tuesday that the decision to adopt masking in areas with large outbreaks hadn’t been taken lightly, and acknowledged that it wouldn’t be "a welcome piece of news” for vaccinated people.
Masks for many people remain a potent symbol of the darkest days of the pandemic in 2020, before vaccines were available and hospitals around the world were filling up with patients. They also became political flashpoints in an election year shaped by the virus.
That made it a significant milestone when the CDC said in May that fully immunized Americans would no longer need to wear face coverings in most situations.
Since then, however, the rapid growth of the delta variant has made that decision appear premature. Delta, more than other viral mutations, has shown itself to be adept at evading the protection afforded by vaccines.
Walensky said on the call that the CDC had gathered data suggesting that some vaccinated people infected with the delta variant can transmit the virus to others.
The CDC’s website tracks community transmission, categorizing it as substantial or high based on based on the number of cases in the last seven days per 100,000 population and the number of tests in the last seven days that have a positive result.
The latest data shows 46% of U.S. counties are experiencing high levels of community transmission, with 17% are experiencing substantial levels.
At the state level, 21 have high levels of transmission, including Arkansas, Florida and Louisiana. Eighteen states have substantial transmission, among them California, New Mexico and New York.
The CDC also recommends that teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status, Walensky said, though she backed the return to in-person education when classes resume in coming weeks.
At the same time, Walensky stressed that vaccines remain the best way to avoid catching the virus and that she encouraged any activities to motivate more vaccination.
More employers are beginning to take steps to push workers to get shots. U.S. President Joe Biden said on Tuesday he is considering making vaccination compulsory for federal workers. California and New York City this week said that they would put vaccine mandates in place for public workers.
Private businesses are also ramping up their response to the new wave of illness in the U.S. Ford Motor Co. said it would require vaccines for some workers and reinstate masking mandates at facilities in Missouri and Florida, two states where new virus cases are soaring.
A handful of local governments, such as Los Angeles County, have also adopted new masking restrictions, though some officials have resisted enforcing them.
Adherence to the new masking guidelines from the CDC is likely to come down to the willingness of businesses and local governments to observe and enforce them. In previous waves of the pandemic, making sure that customers were masking up was mostly left to low-paid store clerks and other workers.
Some Republican lawmakers pushed back against the recommendations. Florida Sen. Rick Scott said in a tweet there was "nothing to justify this approach.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted that the change was "politics, not science” and said in a statement that there should be no mandates of any kind related to COVID-19.
Public health experts had urged the CDC to recommend that even fully vaccinated people wear face coverings in public as delta reignites the pandemic in the U.S.
Former CDC Director Julie Gerberding said the agency is responding to the change in transmission patterns as the pandemic evolves. "That is exactly what we need them to do — follow the science,” she said.
"Nobody wants to bring the delta variant home,” Gerberding said. "That is why masking and other common sense measures make sense until vaccination coverage improves and transmission once again slows.”
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, has warned that the U.S. is moving in the wrong direction in combating the new COVID-19 wave spurred by delta.
Biden was briefed by Fauci on the new guidance, press secretary Jen Psaki said in a briefing Tuesday. The president said in a statement that he hoped "all Americans who live in the areas covered by the CDC guidance will follow it; I certainly will when I travel to these areas.”
Former surgeon general Jerome Adams said the CDC acted prematurely when it announced that fully immunized Americans would no longer need to wear face coverings in most situations.
"The execution was poor, and the results speak for themselves,” Adams said via email. "Low mask usage, slowed vaccination rates and exploding cases.”
The delta variant has prompted many countries to rethink their public health strategies against the pandemic. However, as recently as last week, Walensky said the CDC was sticking with its recommendations that fully vaccinated people don’t usually need masks, while allowing that wearing one may have some advantages.
The CDC most recently said the delta variant now makes up 83% of all sequenced COVID-19 cases in the U.S., up from 50% at the beginning of the month. Areas of the country with limited vaccination coverage are allowing spread of the highly transmissible variant.
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