The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Tuesday that some vaccinated people wear a mask indoors. The recommendation would only affect vaccinated people in parts of the United States where COVID-19 is surging.
After months of falling cases, deaths and hospitalizations, the trend began to change at the beginning of the summer. The delta variant began spreading wildly, especially in areas with lower vaccination rates.
Now, the country is averaging more than 57,000 cases a day and 24,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations.
In response, a growing number of cities and towns have restored indoor masking rules in recent weeks. This includes Los Angeles, St. Louis, Savannah, Georgia, and Provincetown, Massachusetts.
After spending much of the pandemic telling Americans to wear masks outdoors if they were within 6 feet of one another, the CDC eased its guidelines back in the April. Officials said fully vaccinated people no longer needed to cover their faces unless they were in a big crowd of strangers.
The next month, the guidance was eased even further. Fully vaccinated people were allowed to stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings. This cleared the way for reopening workplaces and other venues.
Later guidance said fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks at summer camps or at schools, either.
Some public health experts said they thought these decisions were based on good science. That science indicated the risk of vaccinated people spreading the virus was relatively low. The risk of them catching the virus and getting very sick was even lower.
However, those experts also noted there was no call for Americans to document their vaccination status. They said this created an honor system that unvaccinated people exploited.
“If all the unvaccinated people were responsible and wore mask indoors, we would not be seeing this surge,” said Dr. Ali Khan, a former CDC disease investigator.
Lawrence Gostin, a public health law professor at Georgetown University, said the CDC may now be seen as “flip-flopping,” because there’s been no widely recognized change in the science. He went on to say it’s not likely to change the behavior of the people who most need to wear masks.
“I don’t think you can effectively walk that back,” he said.