The arrival of COVID vaccines was supposed to herald a new dawn in the United States, with promises of a “hot vax summer” as more than half the country got a shot and new cases of the virus plummeted to record lows. In the spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks in most circumstances and states gradually lifted a variety of pandemic restrictions meant to blunt transmission of the virus.
Now just two months later the picture has dramatically changed, with new cases and hospitalizations surging thanks to the Delta variant, though not deaths. In a surprising announcement made on Tuesday, the CDC partially reversed its mask guidance and recommend that fully vaccinated people should mask back up in many cases. (Several metropolitan areas have reinstated mask mandates in the face of surging COVID cases.)
“This is not a decision that was taken lightly,” says CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky at a press briefing on Tuesday. “This new guidance weighs heavily on me.”
The CDC says everyone, including fully-vaccinated people, should wear a mask in indoor, public places if they live in areas of “substantial and high transmission” of the virus. The guidelines will also recommend everyone wear a mask in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status, as less than a third of teenagers are vaccinated and children under 12 are not yet eligible for shots. “It’s their only line of defense.”
The shift comes after the agency reviewed new data suggesting fully vaccinated individuals infected with the virus, so-called “breakthrough cases,” carry a similar viral load as those who are unvaccinated, according to The Washington Post, raising concerns that fully vaccinated may transmit the virus after all. “This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations,” Walensky said.