The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed course Tuesday on some masking guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the coronavirus is surging.
Citing new information about the ability of the delta variant to spread among vaccinated people, the CDC also recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.
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.
The country is averaging more than 57,000 cases a day and 24,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations.
On Monday, health officials for eight Washington state counties, including Clallam and Jefferson, recommended a return to wearing masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. In addition to the two North Olympic Peninsula counties, the counties are King, Pierce, Snohomish, Kitsap, San Juan and Grays Harbor.
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, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle 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, Walensky said.
The data emerged over the last couple of days from 100 samples. It is unpublished, and the CDC has not released it. But “it is concerning enough that we feel like we have to act,” Walensky said.
Vaccinated people “have the potential to spread that virus to others,” she said.
For months COVID cases, deaths and hospitalizations were falling steadily, but those trends began to change at the beginning of the summer as the Delta variant, a mutated and more transmissible version of the virus, began to spread widely, especially in areas with lower vaccination rates.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Delta variant has changed the nation’s COVID-19 outlook since the CDC relaxed masking recommendations.
“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,” Psaki said.
“What has not changed,” she added, “is the fact that people who are vaccinated have a huge deal of protection from serious illness, from hospitalization and from death.”