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CDC to recommend masks for vaccinated people in some situations

Date: July 27, 2021

By Justine Coleman, The Hill

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) plans to adjust its mask recommendations to advise people vaccinated against COVID-19 to again wear masks indoors in certain situations, according to a source familiar with the expected announcement.

The change in guidance comes after COVID-19 cases have risen nationwide, nearly tripling in the past two weeks as the delta variant sweeps the country. More reports of breakthrough cases among fully vaccinated people have streamed in as the highly transmissible variant became the dominant strain in the U.S.

The New York Times first reported the expected announcement on Tuesday. A CDC spokesperson referred to an agency briefing scheduled for 3 p.m. for more information.

The more restrictive mask guidance marks a reversal from the CDC's move to previously loosen mask recommendations in May. The agency had advised that fully vaccinated individuals could go without a mask in most indoor and outdoor settings, while unvaccinated people were still instructed to cover their faces.

Critics denounced the CDC's alleviated recommendations for masking, calling it premature and arguing that without verification of people's vaccine status the public would be relying on an honor system.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky at the time cited low infection rates among vaccinated individuals and the effectiveness of the vaccine as reasoning for the decision.

But that was before the more transmissible delta variant took hold of most of the U.S. - now making up a large number of infections.

Biden administration officials had discussed possible updates to the guidance in recent days and were in touch with White House officials about potential changes as cases worsened and the situation seemed to grow more problematic. The White House has repeatedly deferred to medical experts for any final decision, however, in an effort to avoid politicizing public health guidance.

Public health officials have said the vaccines are effective against the delta variant, but breakthrough infections indicate the strain could potentially get around the vaccine more than previous strains.

Still, federal officials have said 97 percent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

Last week, Walensky told reporters there were no plans to adjust the agency's guidance, adding that "we are always looking at the data as the data come in."

"If you're in an area that has a high case rate and low rates of vaccination where delta cases are rising, you should certainly be wearing a mask if you are unvaccinated," Walensky said, noting vaccinated people could choose whether to mask up.

Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, said in a tweet that the CDC's reported plan to restrict its mask guidance for fully vaccinated people was good news.

"I hope that the CDC comes out with a strong message saying that indoor masking is required for everyone unless there is proof of vaccination (i.e. vaccinated around vaccinated = no need for masks, but otherwise can't trust honor system)," she said.

The shift in guidance also follows certain jurisdictions' reinstitution of mask requirements and recommendations amid COVID-19 surges. Los Angeles County and St. Louis City and County have both mandated masks again.

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