In another step to combat the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that all Americans—whether vaccinated or unvaccinated—wear masks indoors at K-12 schools or if they live in counties with “substantial to high” transmission.
In a Tuesday afternoon press briefing, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that the decision is based on new data on breakthrough infections collected across the United States and overseas that suggest vaccinated individuals can serve as carriers and transmitters of the virus, despite rarely suffering serious outcomes.
“This new guidance plays heavily on me, and I just wanted to convey that this was not a decision that was taken lightly,” Walensky said. “Public health experts, scientific experts, medical experts, when we have shown them these data, have universally said that this required action.”
This guidance is unlikely to change school policy for New York City, which has said teachers, students and staff would remain masked, but it conflicts with New York State’s decision in June to drop the school masking requirement. New Jersey has been encouraging mask use in schools but pledged to update its policy ahead of the fall semester—in expectation of new federal guidelines.
The CDC also advises a return to universal masking for counties with substantial to high spread, as judged by case rates or positivity. Substantial transmission occurs when case rates are 50-100 infections per 100,000 people or when positivity rates are 8% to 10%. High transmission is defined as a positivity rate above 10% or a case rate above 100 infections per 100,000 people.
As of July 27th, all five New York City counties have community transmission considered substantial or high by the CDC. Staten Island leads the way with 100 cases per 100,000. Queens and Manhattan land closer to 50 cases per 100,000. About a half dozen counties in eastern New Jersey, stretching from Bergen to Atlantic, would also be called upon to reinstate universal masking under the CDC’s advisory. (You can look up your county here. After you do, make sure to scroll down for all the details).
The delta variant, which has been the dominant COVID-19 strain in New York City since the beginning of July, is more transmissible. One study suggests its viral load is a thousand times higher than the original coronavirus. This has led to an increase in hospitalizations across the country, with 97% of those hospitalizations being people who have not yet been vaccinated. Those who are vaccinated are much better protected from severe illness and hospitalization if they contract the delta variant.
“We all need to acknowledge that there are some people who are not able to be fully vaccinated, like children, and some people who are not able to be fully protected, even though they are vaccinated, like the immunocompromised,” Walensky said. “So, the reason for this guidance is to make sure that we can protect those [people], and so that people who are seeing immunocompromised people, for example, know how to protect them, even though they themselves may be fully vaccinated.”
Municipal, county and state officials will ultimately decide if and when their areas adopt the guidelines. Hours before the CDC’s briefing, Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked how New York City might reexamine its own masking effort.
“Whatever happens with masks, I want to be as clear as I can be, the number one tool, the number one weapon, the number one savior is vaccination,” he replied. “So, we can talk about masks and figure out what makes sense to make – to do about masks. But the thing that will save us is vaccination. The thing that will change the entire environment is vaccination.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement that his office is reviewing the CDC’s recommendations in consultation with federal and state health experts.
“New Yorkers beat back COVID before — going from the highest positivity rate on the globe to one of the lowest — by staying smart, following the science, and having each other’s backs, and that’s exactly what we’ll keep doing in this next phase of the pandemic,” the statement reads.
On Monday, de Blasio announced that all city employees would need to be vaccinated by mid-September or undergo weekly COVID testing. But his office has been reluctant to reinstate universal masking over recent weeks.
“The one thing I want to make sure is that folks don’t say, oh, you know, because there’s new mask rules, we don’t need to think about vaccination anymore. No, it’s quite the opposite,” de Blasio added. “If we’re not dealing with vaccination, we’re not dealing with the problem. If you want a recovery, we got to get more people vaccinated.”