The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Biden administration is expected to change their recommendations on mask-wearing Tuesday, pushing for individuals to revive the wearing of face coverings indoors in certain parts of the country — including for those who have received vaccinations — to protect against the coronavirus.
The likely change in recommendations comes as the number of “breakthrough” infections (positive COVID-19 test results among those who are vaccinated) has risen alongside the spread of the Delta variant of the virus.
The revised approach expected to be announced soon is a departure from recommendations made back in May, when the CDC had said that those who had received their vaccinations could go unmasked in virtually every possible scenario. Those earlier recommendations, however, were made with the assumption that unvaccinated individuals would still wear masks until they received their shots.
Many experts criticized that idea at the time, noting that it was reliant on the “honor system” of the unvaccinated taking the pandemic seriously. Indeed, polling in June found that unvaccinated Americans were the group of people least likely to be wearing masks, even after the CDC said that they should continue to do so. As of last month, only 38 percent of those who hadn’t been vaccinated (less than 4 in 10 Americans) said that they were still following the CDC rule.
Over the past couple of weeks, the rate of new cases of coronavirus being reported has increased by 144 percent nationwide. The seven-day average of new cases being reported daily currently sits at around 56,000.
The seven-day average has not been this high since April 25 — around the same time that all U.S. adults became eligible to get vaccinated.
Not surprisingly, there appears to be a direct correlation between areas of the country where vaccination rates are low and the new COVID hotspots. Of the 10 counties in the U.S. currently seeing the highest numbers of new cases, all have a fully-vaccinated rate among residents that is below 50 percent, with six of them having rates that are lower than 35 percent.
The new guidance from the Biden administration will encourage masks to be worn in areas where high transmission rates are occurring. But some experts criticized the administration for failing to consider the ramifications of revoking mask recommendations back in May.
“I think they should say we made a mistake with our guidance earlier because we were reliant on the honor system and the honor system didn’t work,” former Baltimore health commissioner Leana Wen said to NBC News. “As a result, too many people are unvaccinated and the Delta variant spreads and we have a different situation in our country now.”
White House officials maintain that vaccinated individuals are a minuscule portion of those transmitting the virus, and that the larger problem is that those who aren’t vaccinated are spreading COVID-19 and its variants by refusing to get their shots or to mask up. The best defense against coronavirus remains getting vaccinated, and breakthrough cases remain rare. When a vaccinated person does get infected, their symptoms are often lessened, too, as a result of their inoculation.
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