People Should Wear Masks Indoors in COVID Hot Spots—Even if They’re Fully Vaccinated

U.S. health officials reverse guidelines on face coverings as Delta variant triggers rise in new cases.

man in store wearing mask

Medically reviewed in July 2021

Updated on July 27, 2021

After relaxing its guidelines about masks in May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reversed course just two months later, recommending that all people—even those who are fully vaccinated—wear masks indoors in areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates.

This is especially important for those with weakened immune systems and those who live with people at high risk for the disease, the CDC advises.

Looking ahead to the fall, the CDC also recommends that everyone in schools—from kindergarten to 12th grade—wear a mask regardless of their vaccination status.

What prompted this decision? A surge in new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in areas with low vaccination rates due to the rise of the highly infectious Delta variant, also known as B.1.617.2.

Delta has shown a willingness to be an opportunist, said CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH in a July 26th news briefing. New data shows that Delta behaves “uniquely different from past strains of COVID,” Dr. Walensky explained, noting that in some rare occasions, some vaccinated people infected with Delta after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others.

“Vaccinating more Americans now is more urgent than ever,” Walensky advises.

Delta on the rise
Unvaccinated people are at greatest risk of spreading the disease and passing the infection to others. Breakthrough infections among vaccinated people are rare, and if vaccinated people are infected, they’re unlikely to become seriously ill. But based on the latest available evidence, the CDC cautions that some vaccinated people who become infected with the Delta variant could potentially pose a risk to those who are not vaccinated, the CDC pointed out.

It’s estimated that Delta could be roughly twice as infectious as initial COVID strains. Some evidence also suggests Delta is more dangerous. The Delta variant is so infectious that the U.S. will need to vaccinate a higher percentage of people in order to achieve herd immunity, according to former CDC director, Tom Frieden, MD, MPH.

Nearly 90 percent of U.S. jurisdictions have seen a surge in new COVID-19 cases as of July 22, the CDC reports. Meanwhile, 35 percent of U.S. counties are experiencing high levels of community transmission. Health officials warn that as more people become infected, healthcare resources may once again become drained, increasing the risk for worse outcomes.

Vaccination rates have stalled
As of July 25, 49 percent of eligible U.S. adults and young people age 12 or older are fully vaccinated, and nearly 57 percent are partially vaccinated with at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. But roughly 30 percent of adults who could be immunized have not gotten even one shot.

To be clear: COVID-19 is now among the list of preventable diseases—along with others, like polio, measles and Chickenpox (Varicella), according to the CDC. But pockets of unvaccinated people across the United States and around world are providing opportunities for the virus to continue mutating, possibly rendering existing vaccines less effective against it.

In fact, variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 are responsible for every single new case in the United States, the CDC reports. The original coronavirus strain is no longer among the variants spreading across the country. The Delta variant now represents 83 percent of new COVID-19 cases in the United States, according to Walensky.

What hasn’t changed
The decision to rollback mask rules based on CDC guidance will be made and implemented by state and local officials.

But face coverings are still required by federal, state or local laws or where mandated by tribal or territorial laws and regulations, the CDC notes.  Masks also remain required in healthcare settings, jails and homeless shelters.

Everyone—even those who are fully vaccinated—must continue to wear a mask on all planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation when traveling into, within, or out of the United States. Masks must also be worn in U.S. airports, stations and other transportation hubs. 

Masks may also still be required by certain businesses and workplaces.

Be part of the solution
All people can help prevent the coronavirus from mutating by taking all possible steps to prevent its spread, including getting immunized if you’re eligible to receive a vaccine, wearing a mask indoors in areas with high transmission rates and washing your hands well and often and not touching your face with unclean hands.

Other preventative steps you can take:

  • Practice social distancing. That means stay at least 6 feet apart from other people.
  • Avoid crowded places, close-contact settings, and confined and enclosed spaces with poor ventilation.
  • Do not linger indoors around other people.
  • When indoors, increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible. This includes opening windows, doors and turning on fans and keeping the air moving when you’re inside.
  • Avoid buildings with poor ventilation.
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol (if soap and water aren’t available).
  • Stay home from work or school if you are sick or have symptoms.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with tissues that you then put in the trash.
  • Frequently disinfect surfaces with cleaning spray or wipes.
Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19 Vaccine Breakthrough Infections Reported to CDC — United States, January 1–April 30, 2021.” May 28, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Our Shot to End the Pandemic.” Jul 23, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID Data Tracker. Jul 26, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People.”  Jul 16, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Guidance for Unvaccinated People: How to Protect Yourself & Others.”

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