Fully vaccinated adults should continue to wear masks when inside public places in areas where there are high numbers of coronavirus infections, US Centres for Disease Control Director Dr Rochelle Walensky said in a media call.
The new guidance is a direct response to the growing number of Delta variant coronavirus cases across the country, specifically among unvaccinated individuals. She said that getting the vaccine is still the best way to protect oneself against the virus.
Dr Walensky said that new science suggests fully vaccinated people can still spread the virus, but noted that the vast amount of transmission is still through unvaccinated people to other unvaccinated individuals.
She said the decision is not one that was made lightly, noting that people were “tired” and “frustrated” and acknowledging that the news would not be welcome to people who have already been vaccinated.
The CDC director said that mask wearing is always a “personal choice”, but noted that people who live in areas with low infection rates are less likely to encounter unvaccinated individuals. The updated CDC mask guidance is specifically for areas with high transmission rates.
She said that the vast majority of illness and death is among unvaccinated people.
Dr Walensky said one in 10 or one in 20 transmissions are coming from vaccinated individuals.She also said all students, staff and teachers should wear masks when schools open in the fall.
For those wondering if they live in an area with high transmissions, they can visit the CDC Covid data tracker.
Dr Walensky said the CDC is encouraging communities to determine for themselves if measures like vaccine mandates are appropriate, suggesting it will not issue official guidance to enact those policies.
Los Angeles updated its mask mandate last week in response to the uptick in cases.
According to Dr Walensky, eight in 10 samples of coronavirus now have the Delta variant present.
“The Delta variant is showing a willingness to outsmart us and to be an opportunist in areas where we haven’t shown fortified response against [the virus],” she said.
The doctor said the Delta variant was behaviour that was different from any of the previous strains of the coronavirus.
Dr Walensky said that vaccination was still the best way to stave off the virus, and noted that the vaccine reduced the chance of infection by the Delta variant “seven-fold” and illness or hospitalisation by “twenty-fold”.
Health officials met on Sunday to discuss whether or not to update the guidance. Dr Walensky said that if the science shifts again, then the guidance will be changed again.
The White House has been largely hands off regarding official suggestions on mask wearing. When asked about the potential change to mask usage, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that the Biden administration would follow the lead of the CDC.
“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,” Ms 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.”