With COVID-19 cases back on the rise in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated its mask guidelines once again — this time, the organization is suggesting that fully vaccinated folks should wear masks indoors in areas with certain amounts of virus transmission. The amended recommendations come just two months after the organization announced that fully vaccinated people could stop wearing masks in most settings.
In a press briefing on Tuesday, Rochelle Walensky, M.D., director of the CDC, said that "in recent days," she has "seen new scientific data from recent outbreak investigations showing that the Delta variant behaves uniquely differently from past strains of the virus that cause COVID-19," according to CNN. And because of, in Dr. Walensky's words, "this new worrisome science," the CDC updated its mask guidelines — a decision "that we or CDC has not made lightly," she explained. (Related: Why Are the New COVID-19 Strains Spreading More Quickly?)
What do the new public health recommendations include, exactly? For one, fully vaccinated folks should wear masks in public indoor settings in areas of "substantial or high transmission." (FYI — the CDC defines "substantial transmission" as counties that have more than 50-100 cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period and "high transmission" as those with more than 100 cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period.) Additionally, the CDC now advises teachers, staff, and students wear masks indoors upon their return to school later this year — no matter their vaccination status. "Finally, [the] CDC recommends community leaders encourage vaccination and universal masking to prevent further outbreaks in areas of substantial and high transmission," said Dr. Walensky during Tuesday's briefing, as reported by CNN. "With the Delta variant, vaccinating more Americans now is more urgent than ever."
Since first being detected in India in February, the Delta or B.1.617.2 variant has spread to more than 80 countries and has been linked to cases in almost every state in the U.S. A June 2021 study published in The Lancet suggests that the Delta variant is linked to an 85 percent higher risk of hospitalization than other strains, and is 60 percent more transmissible than the Alpha (B.1.17) variant, which had been the dominant strain until Delta took over. As of Tuesday, the Delta variant accounted for more than 80 percent of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to The New York Times. (Related: Why Is the New Delta COVID Variant So Contagious?)
In addition to being able to spread more rapidly and easily, the Delta variant also appears to replicate more efficiently within an infected person, causing more symptoms than a patient might've otherwise had if they'd become sick with another strain. Think: hearing loss, nausea, and severe stomach pains.
Recent data from the CDC indicates, as of Tuesday morning, that nearly half — 46 percent — of U.S. counties have a "high" level of community COVID-19 transmission and 17 percent have "substantial transmission." Currently, every county in Arkansas and Louisiana is listed as having "high" levels of community transmission. And other states such as Florida, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and Alaska, are reported to have "high" transmission in many (if not most) of their counties. (In case you forgot, here's how COVID-19 transmission happens.)
Just because Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NPR on Tuesday that "breakthrough infections among vaccinated people are rare," don't mean they can't happen. "When people who are vaccinated do get a breakthrough infection, we know now as a fact that they are capable of transmitting the infection to someone else," said Dr. Fauci. So, even if you're vaccinated against COVID-19, wearing a mask when indoors "where you don't know what the status is" (think: whether or not those around you are infected or vaccinated) and that there's a high degree of transmission is the safest course of action, he explained.
And Richard Watkins, M.D., agrees. Dr. Watkins, an infection disease physician and professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio University, told Shape that that the CDC's new mask guidelines are "reasonable" given "the increase in cases we have been seeing over the last several weeks."
"Something different needs to be done, especially since the rate of vaccinations seems to have stalled," he continued.
Over 163 million people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to recent CDC data. That means, as of publication, nearly half of the country remains unvaccinated — and, in turn, at an increased risk for not only getting COVID-19 but also experiencing worsened effects from the disease. "This is an issue predominantly among the unvaccinated, which is the reason why we're out there, practically pleading with the unvaccinated people to go out and get vaccinated," said Dr. Fauci on CNN on Sunday. (Related: Why Some People Are Choosing Not to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine)
TL;DR — If you're vaccinated and in a COVID-19 hot zone so-to-speak, then you should get back into the swing of throwing on a mask when you head indoors. Not vaccinated? You heard Dr. Fauci: Consider getting the shot(s) and, as always, wear a mask whenever you can't socially-distance in public.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it's possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.