As COVID-19 cases rise, CDC urges masks indoors, including schools

Republicans criticize new guidelines, saying agency can no longer be trusted

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, here on Capitol Hill in April, says new data suggests some fully vaccinated individuals infected with the delta variant can spread the coronavirus to others.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, here on Capitol Hill in April, says new data suggests some fully vaccinated individuals infected with the delta variant can spread the coronavirus to others. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 27, 2021 at 12:58pm, Updated at 6:24pm

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Tuesday that some people vaccinated against COVID-19 resume wearing face masks indoors as new data indicates fully vaccinated individuals can spread the dangerous delta variant.

The rising threat of infection led the agency to say that individuals in areas of “high” or “substantial” transmission of COVID-19 should wear masks indoors, whether or not they are vaccinated. All students, staff and visitors to K-12 schools should wear a mask when students resume in-person learning in the fall, regardless of vaccination status, the CDC said. 

The CDC defines high transmission as more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days. Nearly half — 1,496 — of U.S. counties are at this high level of transmission, according to CDC data. Over 17 percent of other counties are currently at levels of substantial transmission, with 50 to 99 new cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days.

President Joe Biden said more steps to increase vaccination would be announced Thursday.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters that new data from other countries suggests some fully vaccinated individuals infected with the delta variant may be contagious and can spread the virus to others.

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine reduces the risk of infection upon exposure to the delta variant by seven-fold and reduces the risk of hospitalization and death by 20-fold, the CDC director said. 

But although the immediate risks of a breakthrough COVID-19 infection are thought to be small among the vaccinated, there could be long-term consequences throughout communities.

“The big concern is that the next variant that might emerge, just a few mutations potentially away, could potentially evade our vaccine,” Walensky said when asked why vaccinated individuals should mask up when the unvaccinated are causing most of the virus’s spread at this point.

The three currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines provide ample protection against the virus, but wearing a mask can help prevent its spread and save lives, administration officials have said.

“The reality is we are dealing with a much different strain of the virus than we were earlier in the spring,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters earlier in the day.

Rising infection rates

The delta variant has caused an uptick in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, especially among the unvaccinated, with overall infections rising 300 percent in a little over a month through July 23, the CDC said. That led many public health experts to fear an even greater spike in cases in the coming weeks.

In May, the CDC said fully vaccinated Americans could ditch masks indoors due to low transmission rates across the country and high rates of vaccinations. But in recent weeks, vaccinations have plateaued, and just 60 percent of American adults are fully vaccinated. Polling indicates that getting the remaining 40 percent across the finish line could be a slow crawl, as many unvaccinated Americans say they are not interested in getting a shot.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 vaccines are allowed only for kids ages 12 and up. Earlier this month, the CDC said all fully vaccinated school-age children could go maskless in the classroom, while unvaccinated students should mask up. Soon after the agency released this guidance, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended all students, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in the classroom to help prevent transmission.

“Masking students is inconvenient, I know, but will allow them to learn and be with their classmates with the best available protection,” Biden said in a statement.

Although children are less likely to be hospitalized or die as a result of COVID-19 compared with adults, physicians warn children can still suffer from the long-term effects of the disease for months after recovery. Also, the rapid spread of COVID-19 among unvaccinated children could lead to the creation of new, harmful variants.

The CDC did not provide new numbers on the number of breakthrough infections among vaccinated people caused by the delta variant, but Walensky said the agency would have more data on breakthrough infections soon.

Several health care groups, including the American Medical Association and the Infectious Diseases Society of America, applauded the CDC’s move on masks.

“The overwhelming majority of current COVID-19 cases are occurring in unvaccinated individuals, and significantly increasing vaccination rates are urgently needed to stop the spread of COVID-19 and save lives. Until then, mask wearing will help reduce infections, prevent serious illnesses and death, limit strain on local hospitals and stave off the development of even more troubling variants,” IDSA President Barbara Alexander said in a statement.

Republicans react

Republicans on Capitol Hill criticized the new guidelines and argued the CDC was undermining Americans’ confidence in COVID-19 vaccines.

“I just think that all Americans are done wearing a mask,” Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall said.

Other lawmakers said citizens no longer trust the CDC after so much back-and-forth over virus restrictions and regulations. Public health experts have repeatedly said the public is watching science happen in real time due to the evolving nature of the virus.

“Mask mandates for more command and control will not build trust — only resentment. The Biden Administration should be leading with science, not shame and fear,” House Energy and Commerce ranking member Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said in a statement.

The new recommendations come as partisan fights continue in Congress over a mandate, lifted in June for vaccinated members, that masks be worn on the House floor.

Three Republicans fined for violating the mandate — Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Ralph Norman of South Carolina — announced a lawsuit Tuesday against Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Sergeant-at-Arms William J. Walker and House Chief Administrative Officer Catherine Szpindor.

They contend that the fines reduced their salaries, in violation of the Constitution, and that the mandate was enforced in a discriminatory way to prohibit “protected symbolic speech of members who are not in the majority,” according to a news release.

“We are fighting this because if they can get away with this in Congress, they’ll do the same things to our kids when they go back to school, they’ll do the same things to our hard working Americans in their workplaces, and they’ll do the same things to our soldiers,” Massie said in the release.

In response to the CDC’s advice, GOP Sen. Ron Johnson said he believes health agencies have not been transparent enough throughout the entire pandemic. Back in his home state of Wisconsin, where just over half of the population is fully vaccinated, he says life has returned to normal. 

“People have completely lost faith in the federal agencies, these pronouncements, these guides and stuff. They’re blowing them off,” Johnson said. The senator has said he believes he does not need to get the COVID-19 vaccine because he had the virus last year. Experts say a vaccination provides much more protection than natural immunity.

Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy said that if the CDC were to make the data about breakthrough infections public, people would be more likely to trust it. He called on the agency to release more data soon.

Another Republican, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, went even further and accused the CDC of playing politics with the virus.

“Enough is enough. The CDC has lost its credibility when it comes to what decisions Americans should make about COVID-19. It’s long past time we got back to trusting the American people, not unelected federal bureaucrats,” he said.

Mary Ellen McIntire and Herb Jackson contributed to this report.