U.S. CDC calls for masks in areas of high COVID-19 transmission, even for fully vaccinated

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reversed course on its recommendations around mask-wearing and now says that in areas of high COVID-19 transmission rates, even fully vaccinated Americans should wear masks in public indoor settings to prevent the spread of the delta variant.

Tuesday announcement reverses course from earlier public health recommendations

People wear masks while walking in Grand Central Terminal on July 27 in New York City. Due to the rapidly spreading delta variant, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that fully vaccinated people begin wearing masks indoors again in places with high COVID-19 transmission rates. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19 should go back to wearing masks in indoor public places in regions where the coronavirus and especially the delta variant are spreading rapidly, U.S. health authorities said on Tuesday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommended all teachers and students in kindergarten through Grade 12 wear masks in schools regardless of vaccination status. The CDC said children should return to full-time, in-person learning in the fall with proper prevention strategies.

The changes mark a reversal of the CDC's announcement in May that prompted millions of vaccinated Americans to shed their face coverings.

Change in infection patterns

The United States leads the world in the daily average number of new infections, accounting for one in every nine cases reported worldwide each day.

The seven-day average for new cases has been rising sharply and stands at 57,126, still about a quarter of the pandemic peak.

"In areas with substantial and high transmission, CDC recommends that fully vaccinated individuals wear a mask in public indoor settings to help prevent spread of delta and protect others," the agency said.

The CDC said that 63 per cent of U.S. counties had high transmission rates that warranted mask wearing. It's a figure that follows the rise of the highly transmissible delta variant, which now makes up more than eight in 10 cases across the country.

In May, the agency advised that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks outdoors and can avoid wearing them indoors in most places, guidance the agency said would allow life to begin to return to normal.

Dr. David Doudy, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, said the CDC guidance was motivated by a change in infection patterns.

"We're seeing this doubling in the number of cases every 10 days or so," he said.

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Doug Manuel, senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital, says the level of COVID-19 transmission in the community will have to be much lower before the masks come off — and those low case numbers likely won’t happen until the fall.

'A necessary precaution'

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten praised the new CDC mask guidance in a statement, saying it was needed "to deal with the changing realities of virus transmission."

She called it "a necessary precaution until children under 12 can receive a COVID vaccine and more Americans over 12 get vaccinated."

The new CDC recommendations are not binding and many Americans, especially in Republican-leaning states, may choose not to follow them. At least eight states bar schools from requiring masks.

Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, a medical epidemiologist and adjunct professor at Cornell University Public Health, said resistance was likely among some people.

"I think we will get blowback because I think people might view it as backtracking," he said.

On Monday, the Biden administration confirmed it will not lift any existing international travel restrictions, citing the rising number of COVID-19 cases and the expectation that they will continue to rise in the weeks ahead.

Masks became a political issue in the United States under former president Donald Trump, who resisted mandating face coverings.

President Joe Biden has embraced masks and mandated them for transit hubs days after taking office.

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