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  • With the rapid spread of the delta variant and low vaccination rates in many areas, the CDC is recommending a return to mask wearing for vaccinated people.
  • Many parts of the country have substantial or high transmission, particularly in the South and some parts of the West.
  • Fully vaccinated people who do contract the virus have a very low risk of severe illness, hospitalization, or death. But they can spread the disease to others.

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance on mask wearing. The agency now recommends that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors if they are in an area with substantial or high community transmission of the coronavirus.

This is to help prevent the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus and to protect others, said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky during a media briefing Tuesday.

Many parts of the country have substantial or high transmission, particularly in the South and some parts of the West. The CDC data tracker shows community transmission levels for each county.

The CDC also recommends that everyone in K-12 schools wear a mask indoors, including teachers, students, and visitors, regardless of their vaccination status.

Currently, the COVID-19 vaccines are only approved in the United States for people 12 years and older, leaving younger children unprotected against the virus.

With proper prevention strategies in place, such as masking, physical distancing, and improved ventilation, “children should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall,” said Walensky.

She added that the CDC’s recommendations for unvaccinated people remains the same — they should get vaccinated as soon as possible, and continue masking indoors until they are fully vaccinated.

“This is not a decision that the CDC has made lightly. This weighs heavily on me,” said Walensky. “I know 18 months through this pandemic, not only are people tired, they’re frustrated.”

But she said the updated guidance is based on new science about the coronavirus.

“Information on the delta variant from several states and other countries indicates that on rare occasions, some vaccinated people infected with the delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others,” said Walensky.

Fully vaccinated people who do contract the virus have a very low risk of severe illness, hospitalization, or death.

But rare breakthrough infections, as they are called, may allow vaccinated people to pass the virus on to others, including unvaccinated people and those who are immunocompromised.

However, the CDC believes that “vaccinated individuals continue to represent a very small amount of transmission occurring around the country,” said Walensky.

Today’s announcement is a shift from the CDC’s recommendation on May 13 that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear a mask outdoors or in most indoor public spaces because of the strong protection offered by the COVID-19 vaccines.

At the time, cases throughout the country were dropping. Since then, they have risen in all states, driven by the delta variant, which now accounts for over 8 of every 10 infections, according to CDC data.

Some research suggests that people who have contracted the delta variant have a viral load that is 1,000 times higher than seen in people who contracted earlier versions of the virus.

In addition, Walensky said during the briefing that recent CDC data shows that vaccinated and unvaccinated people who contracted the delta variant have similar viral loads.

The daily average of new coronavirus cases in the United States has increased by almost 150 percent over the past 2 weeks, according to data from The New York Times. Many states have seen their cases double, with some seeing them triple or quadruple.

COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are also on the rise, the majority of these among unvaccinated people.

“The highest spread of cases and severe outcomes is happening in places with low vaccination rates and among unvaccinated people,” said Walensky. “This moment, and most importantly the associated illness, suffering, and deaths, could have been avoided with higher vaccination coverage in this country.”

Many people hoped the CDC’s easing of mask requirements for fully vaccinated people in May would encourage more people to get vaccinated.

But 3 months later, just under half of Americans are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. And a recent poll found that most Americans who haven’t even had their first dose don’t want to get vaccinated.

Dr. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital and associate professor at Emory University School of Medicine, said in a separate media briefing Tuesday that this leaves public health officials looking for other ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“If we’re going to have low vaccine uptake or we have a number of people that can’t be vaccinated yet — such as children — we really need to go back to the stopping of transmission, which involves mask wearing,” she said.

Multiple urban areas, including St. Louis and Los Angeles County, have reinstated indoor mask mandates to help control the spike in cases.

But the CDC’s revision of its mask policy for fully vaccinated people reinforces the need to use all public health tools at our disposal to control the rapid spread of the delta variant.

“Even if there’s a small chance for you to be infected and there’s a small chance for you to transmit it,” said Kraft, “this is just a way to really stop the transmission [of the virus.]”