By DR. JOY MARTINEZ, Staff Writer
In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks in most settings, whether indoors or outdoors. This week, the agency recommended that fully vaccinated people begin wearing masks indoors again in places with high COVID-19 transmission rates.
Nearly two-thirds of US counties have high or substantial transmission of COVID-19, according to most recent CDC data, including large areas of the South and Midwest.
In addition, the agency recommends that all teachers, staff and students and visitors of K-12 schools wear masks, without regard to vaccination status. As the highly transmissible delta variant spreads kids remain unprotected against the virus. The vaccines are not authorized for children under 12, and many teenagers have yet to get vaccinated. The nation’s leading group of pediatricians also recommends mandatory masking in schools for all students over the age of 2, staff and teachers regardless of vaccination status.
“This pandemic continues to pose a serious threat to the health of all Americans,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday on a call. “Today, we have new science related to the delta variant that requires us to update the guidance regarding what you can do when you are fully vaccinated.”
Walensky said that the reversal was not a decision the CDC made lightly. She bemoaned, “This weighs heavily on me. I know that at 18 months through this pandemic, not only are people tired, they’re frustrated. We have mental health challenges in this country. We have a lot of continued sickness and death in this country. Our health systems are in some places being overrun for what is preventable and I know, in the context of all that, it is not a welcome piece of news that masking is going to be a part of people’s lives who have already been vaccinated.”
Data shows vaccinated people have higher levels of the virus in their bodies than previously understood and are transmitting it to others. Though the vaccines remain effective at preventing severe disease and death, they do not form an impenetrable shield. Research suggests that people who are vaccinated and have breakthrough infections from delta have as much viral load as a person who is unvaccinated, according to the CDC. This pattern of transmission was not evident in any significant way with earlier strains.
“Vaccinated people are transmitting it and the extent is unclear, but there’s no doubt they’re transmitting it,” according to Dr. Anthony Fauci. “People who are vaccinated, even when they’re asymptomatic, can transmit the virus, which is the scientific foundation of why this recommendation is being made.”
The updated guidance comes ahead of the fall season, when the highly contagious delta variant is expected to cause another surge in coronavirus cases and many large employers plan to bring workers back to the office.
In a statement, President Biden said he hoped “all Americans who live in the areas covered by the CDC guidance will follow it. When I ran for President, I promised to be straight with you about COVID — good news or bad.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the agency’s reversal, explaining the health agency’s decisions are based on a changing situation. “The reality is we are dealing with a much different strain of this virus than we were even earlier in the spring, back in May, when the masking guidance was provided by the CDC at that time,” Psaki told reporters. “That is their job. Their job is to look at evolving information, evolving data, an evolving historic pandemic and provide guidance to the American public. That’s exactly what they will do and what they will provide specific details on later this afternoon.”
Responding to a question about why masking rules should change for the benefit of the unvaccinated, Walensky said that in addition to protecting people who are unable to receive the COVID vaccine (like children) and those who are immunocompromised, with the amount of virus circulating right now, the largest concern among public health officials is the “potential mutations away we are from a very transmissible virus that has the potential to evade our vaccines, in terms of how it protects us from severe disease and death.”
Experts and some senior health officials in the Biden administration said they had grown frustrated that the CDC had not moved more quickly to change its guidance.
“They waited too long,” said one Biden official of the CDC, who spoke anonymously. Some of the CDC’s international partners previously reinstated mask mandates or delayed plans to loosen them. In Israel, an indoor mask mandate was lifted on June 15, only to be reinstated on June 25 as cases of delta surged. Other nations, including Australia and France, have seen regional rules on mask-wearing return this summer amid new outbreaks caused by the delta variant.
In South Korea, one of the first East Asian countries to carve a clear path out of the pandemic, the government announced in June that some vaccinated residents would be allowed to go mask-free outdoors. But before the new policies became effective, the South Korean government canceled them in Seoul and neighboring regions and ordered even fully vaccinated residents to wear a mask inside and outside.
The CDC’s recommendations now also align more closely with local health departments that already have reimposed mask mandates because of rising coronavirus cases, said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor and infectious disease expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.
“This gives more of an opportunity for local health departments to not look as though they’re doing something different than what the CDC is suggesting,” he said. “There was always an option for locals to make that determination, but now it’s much more explicit.”