US reverses mask policy and says vaccinated people should wear them indoors

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People vaccinated against Covid-19 in high-risk parts of the United States must again wear masks indoors, the top health authority said Tuesday, a major turnaround in guidance that underlined the country’s struggle to suppress the Delta variant.

President Joe Biden said the announcement showed America needs to do “better” on vaccinations, adding that a vaccine mandate for the country’s more than two million federal employees is now “under consideration.”

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, cited new data showing that rare breakthrough cases involving Delta have an increased risk of further transmission.

“In areas of substantial and high transmission, the CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people wear masks in indoor public settings,” she said.

Just last week, the CDC had defended its surprising decision in May that vaccinated people should not wear masks indoors in most circumstances.

In another setback, the White House also ordered all of its staff on Tuesday to re-mask due to local transmission speeds in Washington.

According to the latest CDC data, 63 percent of the country’s more than 3,200 counties experience substantial or high transmission.

Significant is defined as between 50 and 100 daily cases per 100,000 people over seven days while high is defined as more than 100 daily cases per 100,000 over seven days.

Biden said he would take further steps on Thursday to close the vaccine backlog following the country’s strong start with its program.

viral load

In a separate address to US intelligence, when asked about a possible vaccine mandate for US federal workers, Biden replied: “That is now being considered.”

On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs said it would need its frontline health workers, some 115,000 people, to get the injection, making it the first federal agency to institute the requirement.

Walensky stressed that so-called “breakthrough” cases among people who have been vaccinated remain rare – injections reduce the risk of symptomatic disease sevenfold, and hospitalizations and deaths by a factor of twenty.

However, new CDC research showed that when a vaccinated person becomes infected, their viral load is comparable to that of an unvaccinated person.

“That leads us to believe that the breakthrough infections, as rare as they are, have the potential to transmit with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person,” she said.

To curb the spread of the Delta variant, the CDC will recommend schools use universal masks, including teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, when they reopen in the fall, she added.

The number of infections in the United States is now increasing, thanks to the Delta variant, which accounts for about 90 percent of cases.

The latest seven-day average of daily cases is over 56,000, similar to the level last seen in April.

More than 610,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the United States.

Forty-nine percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, but vaccination rates are highly skewed toward politically liberal parts of the country.

Walenksy emphasized that she saw masks as a “temporary” measure, adding: “What we really need to do to reduce these transmissions in high-transmission areas is to get more and more people vaccinated.”

Vaccines the solution

Eric Cioe-Pena, director of global health at Northwell Health in New York, told AFP that “this is a solution to a problem that exists because we have a lot of people who have not been vaccinated.”

“The main predictor of how much Covid will rise in an area is vaccination coverage,” he added, so areas that are highly vaccinated will not be covered by the new mask directive.

According to a recent article in the journal Virological, the amount of virus found in the first tests of patients with the Delta variant was 1,000 times higher than that of patients in the first wave of the virus in 2020, greatly increasing infectiousness.

Last month, Israel reintroduced mask mandates just 10 days after they were lifted, due to the Delta variant, and local US jurisdictions, including Los Angeles County, have taken similar steps.

(AFP)