Less than two weeks after Los Angeles became the first county in the nation to require those vaccinated against COVID-19 to wear masks indoors along with everyone else because of increased cases there, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took an about-face on recommendations made just over two weeks ago and is following suit.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday that she did not take lightly the decision to ask for universal masking where cases are rampant but pointed to data that indicates it is necessary to stem the tide of the Delta variant. She emphasized that the spike is largely due to the spread by unvaccinated individuals but noted that data indicates that fully vaccinated people could also transmit the virus.
“Important to convey in all of this is that, of the transmission that is happening in the county right now, the vast majority of the transmission occurring is occurring through unvaccinated individuals,” she explained. “But [with the] exception that you might have a vaccine breakthrough, we thought it was important for people to understand they could pass along the disease to someone else.”
CDC Data Tracker Showing Level of COVID-19 Transmission by Community
She said public health officials are concerned about the emergence of new mutations that could evade the vaccines.
While vaccines remain the best way to curb the spread, universal masking is the next best option. CDC recommends surgical masks or double cloth masks, but Walensky said N95 masks remain a personal or local decision.
Masking indoors is especially important to ensure a safe reopening of schools nationwide next month.
CDC previously recommended on July 9 that only students 2 through 11 years old or anyone else who is unvaccinated wear masks indoors and in crowded settings as well as maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance. But Walensky said that was when there were fewer new cases of COVID-19 and the Delta variant.
She also noted on Tuesday that only 30 percent of children ages 12 through 17 are currently vaccinated.
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As has been the case since the earliest days of the pandemic, people with underlying breathing issues such as students with disabilities who have tracheostomies remain exempt from wearing a mask.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona agreed with CDC’s latest recommendation.
“Students are provided the best opportunity to learn and thrive when learning in person. We know the best way to safely do this is to get as many people age 12 and older vaccinated,” he said in a statement. “Given the recent trends in COVID spread due to premature relaxation of prevention strategies by unvaccinated individuals and lagging vaccination rates in some parts of our country, we support the recommendation for masking in K-12 schools. We must do everything to ensure that our students do not have to compromise any more of their educational experiences due to increases in community spread.”