The new guidance will set up yet another clash between federal government recommendations and the nine states — many where Covid is raging — that have banned school districts from requiring masks and
- Children and adults in K-12 schools should wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. Period.
- Vaccinated Americans should wear masks indoors if they are in high or substantial transmission areas.
- The CDC wants local leaders in high transmission areas to support vaccination and universal masking.
What guidance hasn’t changed?
- The unvaccinated should always have been wearing masks in public, according to the CDC.
- Everyone who can should get vaccinated.
Why did the guidance change? Two reasons, according to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who briefed reporters Tuesday.
The vaccinated may spread the Delta variant. The more important of these is that the CDC now believes that vaccinated Americans, while protected from hospitalization and death, may spread the Delta variant more than previously thought.
Here’s how Walensky explained this new data:
“The Delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us and to be an opportunist in areas where we have not shown a fortified response against it,” she said of the Covid strain that now represents most US cases. “In recent days, I have seen new scientific data from recent outbreak investigations showing that the Delta variant behaves differently from past strains of the virus that cause Covid-19. Information on the Delta variant from several states and other countries indicates that in rare occasions, some vaccinated people infected with the Delta variant after vaccinations may be contagious and spread the virus to others. This new science is worrisome and, unfortunately, warrants an update to our recommendations.”
She also implied a second reason for the change.
Not enough people got vaccinated. “The highest spread of cases is happening in places with low vaccination rates and among unvaccinated people,” she said. “This moment and, most importantly, the associated illness, suffering and death could have been avoided with higher vaccination coverage in this country.”
A brief history of mask guidance. Plenty of Americans will be angry at a lack of consistency from the CDC and the nation’s public health policymakers, who have ricocheted all over the place on masks over the past 16 months of this pandemic:
- Warning against wearing masks so as not to deplete scarce supplies (March 2020)
- Recommending people wear cloth face coverings (April 2020)
- Recommending everyone wear a mask in public settings (July 2020)
- Clarifying for the vaccinated that it’s OK to not wear a mask outside (April 2021)
- Encouraging the vaccinated to take their masks off outdoors and indoors, except in certain circumstances (May 2021)
- Recommending that only unvaccinated students need to wear masks at school (earlier in July 2021)
Some locations are already re-masking. From Los Angeles to St. Louis and Chicago, some places have already reenacted mask guidance or requirements. The CDC recommendation will accelerate those moves.
It will also likely lead to a change of plans in many school districts preparing for the fall return and in some cases likely lead to a political clash.
CNN has been tracking how US school districts will treat masks, and even before the new CDC guidance the nation’s three largest school districts — in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago — had already made clear they would require masks in schools.
Among the top 12 districts in the country, all are requiring masks except those in Florida and Texas, where the governors have banned mask mandates in schools.
Overall, at least 14 of the 30 largest US districts are making masks optional for students in school, while another 13 are requiring them. As of Monday, the remaining three districts were undecided.
Texas Democrats have pleaded with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to reverse a ban on masks in schools for the coming year.
In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis supports vaccination but has been vehemently opposed to anyone in his state being asked by their state or local government to re-mask.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, whose state is a Delta variant epicenter, has also rejected the idea of new mask regulations, in part because the GOP-controlled legislature passed a law rejecting them, but he also points out kids are less likely to get extremely sick.
“We need to get everyone else around that young child vaccinated,” Hutchinson, a Republican, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday. “That’s the cocoon. “That’s how we protect them.”
A closer look at the masking time line
Now, in areas of high or substantial transmission, the new guidance is that vaccinated people should put them back on.