Vaccinated people should resume wearing masks in public, indoor settings — including schools — to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to an updated interim guidance announced Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The new guidance applies to counties that have either “substantial” or “high” level of transmission. Suffolk County is currently listed as “substantial” level of transmission, as is Nassau County and most of New York City. Nearly all upstate counties in New York are listed at either low or moderate.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky cited the more transmissible delta variant, which has become the predominant variant in circulation in the U.S., as reason for the change in guidance.
“In rare occasions, some vaccinated people infected with the delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others,” Dr. Walensky said on a media conference call. “This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendation.”
The CDC has consistently said anyone who is unvaccinated should continue to wear masks in public settings, although that has largely become an honor system.
It’s unclear yet whether New York would impose a mask mandate once again. Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a statement Tuesday said the state is reviewing the new 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,” Mr. Cuomo said.
Dr. Walesnsky reiterated that getting vaccinated remains the biggest key to ending the pandemic and noted vaccination rates are not yet as high as hoped nationally. Vaccinations still greatly reduce risk of severe illness in the rare “breakthrough” cases of a vaccinated person becoming infected and developing symptoms, she said. The vast majority of transmission is still occurring in unvaccinated people and through unvaccinated people, the CDC director said.
She said the CDC recommends everyone in K-12 schools, including teachers, staff, students and visitors, wear a mask while indoors regardless of vaccination status. Children 11 or younger are not yet eligible for the vaccine and the vaccination rate for children 12-17 is currently about 30% nationally, she said.
“Children should return to full-time, in-person learning in the fall with proper prevention strategies in place,” she said.
Local schools are still about five weeks away from reopening. Schools resume in other parts of the country sooner.
She also urged community leaders to encourage vaccination and universal masking to prevent further outbreaks in areas of substantial and high transmission.
“We must take every step we can to stop the delta variant and end this pandemic,” Dr. Walesnsky said.
The mask guidance for schools is already facing some pushback as Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) called it “nonsense” in a Tweet Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s time for these kids’ lives to return to normal,” the congressman, who is running for governor, said. “It’s time to follow the science and follow common sense!”
The CDC COVID data tracker lists each county in the U.S. and notes the current transmission level. The “substantial” marker is determined by a county that has between 50 to 100 cases per 100,000 residents in a seven-day period. Suffolk County has seen cases increase by 61% in the last seven days, bringing the rate to 50.93 per 100,000, just crossing into the “substantial” mark. A county with more than 100 cases per 100,000 is considered high risk.
Dr. Walesnsky said the updated guidance was “not a decision that we have made lightly.”
“This weighs heavily on me,” she said, acknowledging that it was not welcome news. She said “public health experts, scientific experts and medical experts,” agreed when reviewing the latest data that action was required.