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CDC reinstitutes mask recommendations for some vaccinated people

The change comes during the Delta-driven surge

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new recommendations today that people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 should wear masks in public, indoor settings in areas with high rates of disease. The CDC also said that students, teachers, and staffers should wear masks in school, even if they’re vaccinated.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued similar recommendations for schools earlier this month.

The announcements are a reversal of the agency’s May guidance that fully vaccinated people did not need to wear masks in most situations. At that point, cases counts were falling around the country.

Now, the highly contagious Delta variant is spreading around the country and cases are surging in most areas, particularly places with low vaccination rates. COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing serious cases of the disease and death. But they’re not perfect, and some people who are fully vaccinated can still be infected with the virus. Data from the US and other countries shows that, in rare cases, people who are vaccinated and are infected can get sick and pass the virus to others, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a press briefing today.

“We thought it was important for people to understand that they can still infect someone. That is important in the case, for example, of vaccinated, individuals who might be going to visit an immunocompromised family member, we wanted to make sure that they have precautions necessary,” Walensky said. Still, “the vast majority of transmission occurring is occurring through unvaccinated individuals,” she said in today’s briefing.

Some places, like Los Angeles County, already reinstated mask mandates for everyone, regardless of vaccination status.

The CDC did not move more quickly to reinstate mask recommendations because it was worried about appearing to “flip-flop” on the issue, a senior Biden administration official told The Washington Post. Masks have been a chaotic, charged issue since the beginning of the pandemic, and people have been frustrated by shifting guidelines.

Experts say the latest adjustment is an important call in the face of the Delta surge. The recommendations, though, aren’t mandates — it’s up to state and local governments to implement and enforce masking rules. At this point in the pandemic, after officials promised that the end was in sight, getting people to put masks back on might be a challenge.