Update 3:29 p.m. ET: At a press conference held Tuesday afternoon, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky laid out the changed guidelines. The CDC will now recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings in areas with “substantial and high” transmission. Additionally, the CDC will recommend that children, staff, and visitors continue to wear masks in public K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. The CDC’s county-level map of transmission risk can be seen here.
In announcing this decision, Walensky cited new data suggesting that vaccinated people infected with Delta may be more likely to transmit their infection to others compared with previous strains of the virus; prior data had suggested that, in cases where a vaccinated person caught the virus, they shed very little of it and were therefore less likely to transmit it. The Delta strain, it seems, is simply more transmissible than others.
Walensky emphasized, however, that breakthrough infections remain rare and that unvaccinated people remain the highest at risk for illness and death from the coronavirus and that they should get vaccinated as soon as possible. “The vast majority of transmission, severe disease, hospitalization, and death is almost exclusively happening among unvaccinated people,” she said.
Original article appears below.
The CDC is set to recommend mask-wearing for people vaccinated against covid-19, at least some of the time, according to reports from the New York Times and CNN. The change in guidance, which will reportedly happen today, is due to growing concerns over the more transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus. At this time, however, details are scant on the actual changes that the CDC will recommend to the public.
In mid-May, the CDC surprised many people, including public health experts, by releasing new, much-relaxed guidelines for fully vaccinated people (fully vaccinated being defined as two weeks after your last scheduled dose). Vaccinated people would no longer need to wear masks in most indoor situations, except when on public transmit or in certain high-risk environments, like in medical facilities. And they could safely interact with groups of vaccinated or even unvaccinated people from a single household, the CDC advised. Vaccinated people were also told that wearing masks outdoors was unnecessary, even in large crowds, while unvaccinated people could take off their masks while exercising.
The guidelines were quickly criticized by many public health experts. Some argued that the guidance would encourage unvaccinated people to stop wearing masks themselves, in absence of a clear way to distinguish vaccination status, and lead to spikes in new cases. Other experts, while generally supportive of the policy, argued that it was announced with no advance notice and little forethought for how local governments and businesses would have to navigate and implement changes brought about by it.
The unmasking policy didn’t seem to lead to substantial jumps in new cases, and, until recently, cases had continued to decline substantially from the largest peak earlier this year. But in recent weeks, the emergence of the Delta variant (first found in India) seems to have changed the situation. More than 80% of new cases are now thought to be caused by Delta, and, much like other countries where Delta has become dominant, like the UK, daily cases have once again begun climbing back up in the U.S. Hospitalizations and deaths have slightly risen as well, though are still far below their peaks.
There’s also some data from Israel suggesting that while the mRNA vaccines remain highly effective at preventing serious illness from Delta, they might be substantially less effective at preventing any illness at all, which would be a sharp departure from their performance against past strains. This data, it should be noted, does possibly conflict with data from other countries like the UK and Canada, which has suggested that the vaccines remain about as effective as against other strains. And unvaccinated people remain at much higher risk from Delta than those fully vaccinated. But some scientists have wondered whether vaccine-provided immunity may be waning in the earliest group of people who received the shots late last year.
These new developments seem to have influenced the expected change in guidelines. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to the president, stated over the weekend that changes were being actively considered due to the rise in cases. On Sunday, according to CNN, federal officials met to discuss possible changes. And New York Times reported Tuesday morning that these changes will be announced later today.
At this point, though, all that’s known is that the CDC will reportedly call for vaccinated people to wear masks indoors under “certain circumstances,” according to the NYT. As this story is developing, we’ll bring you updates as they come.