The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reversed its mask mandate on Tuesday and now recommends that vaccinated Americans continue to wear masks indoors in some situations, especially those living in COVID hot spots. The new policy comes as the U.S. is seeing a surge in cases associated with the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus.
Back in May, the CDC announced in a guidance that it was safe for vaccinated people to forgo a mask in most settings. That was also at a time when over a million people were getting vaccinated each day. The vaccination rate has sharply declined in the months since, with around 530,000 shots currently being administered each day.
The CDC's new policy also comes nearly a month after the World Health Organization (WHO) urged vaccinated individuals worldwide to continue wearing masks in the wake of sky-rocketing Delta variant cases. But the CDC did not follow suit. At the time, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, described the rest of the world as "fundamentally an unvaccinated planet" in an interview with ABC News. Many parts of the U.S. also remain unvaccinated.
Vaccines remain effective against the worst COVID-19 cases, but lagging vaccination rates across the country are cause for concern as the Delta variant surges. A federal health official who spoke with The Washington Post on background reaffirmed that the Biden administration still believes that vaccinated people are playing a "very small" role in the transmission of the coronavirus.
Still, less than 50% of the country is vaccinated, thus the CDC's new policy recommends that people of all vaccination status wear masks in public indoor spaces and in schools, in parts of the country with a high case rate. The highly infectious Delta variant has caused particularly bad spikes in Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Florida — all states with vaccine rates lower than the national average — The New York Times reports. Coronavirus infections are four times higher now than they were at the beginning of the month, going from 13,000 cases per day to more than 54,000 now, according to The Post.
"Nobody wants to go backward, but you have to deal with the facts on the ground, and the facts on the ground are that it's a pretty scary time, and there are a lot of vulnerable people," Robert Wachter, chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco told the outlet. "I think the biggest thing we got wrong was not anticipating that 30% of the country would choose not to be vaccinated."
Public health experts have urged the CDC to take more aggressive action with its mask policy for weeks, arguing that vaccinated people should continue to wear masks indoors as the country sees another wave of cases. "This is the low season. It shouldn't be spreading as fast during summer," Ali Mokdad, who tracks coronavirus trends at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington told NPR. "We need to reduce the circulation of the virus right now, so when we start the surge in the winter, we will be in a better position.”
Some states and federal agencies put in place new restrictions ahead of the CDC's Tuesday guidance. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday announced it would require doctors and other medical staff to get vaccinated, making it the first federal agency to do so, Al Jazeera reports. California Gov. Gavin Newsom also announced on Monday that starting in August, healthcare workers and state employees would be required to show proof of vaccination, or otherwise get tested for COVID on a weekly basis. However, it will remain in the hands of local leadership how thoroughly another mask mandate is applied. Per the CDC, it's time to mask back up — at least for now — throughout the country, until we see a decline in variant cases.