The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) new mask guidance is spurring confusion and backlash as the country tries to respond to the shifting threat of the delta variant, while some experts say the agency should focus on getting everyone vaccinated.
Several public health experts said the CDC is being prudent by recommending that even fully vaccinated Americans continue to wear masks in indoor public places in areas of the country with high amounts of transmission.
“With cases of COVID-19 continuing to increase in the United States and a significant number of people who remain unvaccinated, the CDC’s updated mask guidance is needed to help curb the spread of COVID-19 — particularly the Delta variant, which we know is much more contagious,” said Gerald Harmon, president of the American Medical Association.
But a range of Republican lawmakers outright blasted the change, saying the CDC was flip-flopping and unnecessarily intruding in the lives of people who had already gotten the vaccine.
“President Biden’s CDC can’t make up its mind,” tweeted House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.). “One mask. Two masks. No masks. Back to one mask.”
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) wrote that the “CDC is putting Washington back into the middle of your lives.”
The CDC based the decision on new data showing that even vaccinated people could spread the delta variant of the virus to others, while stressing that the vaccines still overwhelmingly protect against getting sick, especially against severe illness, and that the most important thing is getting more people vaccinated.
Some in the public health community also offered a more nuanced critique, saying that health officials should be pouring their energy into getting more people vaccinated, not in calling on already-vaccinated people to wear masks, which they said had limited benefit.
Adding to the confusion is that the CDC initially announced the new guidance without first publishing the underlying data used to make the decision.
The Washington Post then reported on information leaked from the CDC, before the agency finally published official data on Friday.
Some experts said the CDC’s action was confusing the message, which should be focused on getting more people vaccinated, not on masks.
“I feel like I’m seeing tons of vaccinated people freak out,” said professor Aaron Carroll, of the Indiana University School of Medicine. “Truly the vast, vast, vast majority of risk is for those that are unvaccinated.”
Carroll said the CDC should focus on encouraging people to get vaccine message rather than distract attention by talkng about masks.
“Right now we’re all talking about universal masking,” said Carroll.
Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said that the CDC recommendation was overly broad. He said that vaccinated people should be aware that they could spread the virus to vulnerable people such as young children or the elderly.
“Whether or not that should then translate into general guidance for the entire population that if you’re vaccinated you should wear a mask, I don’t think that that’s the case,” Gottlieb said. “I don’t think that we’re going to get enough bang for our buck by telling vaccinated people they have to wear masks at all times, to make it worth our while.”
Carroll said that he is not against people wearing masks “if you are around people who are at risk and you want to mask up,” but that should not be the focus of the CDC’s messaging.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky acknowledged in making the announcement that it was a weighty decision and something many people did not want to hear.
“Not only are people tired, they’re frustrated,” she said. “This was not a decision that was taken lightly.”
CNN host John Berman asked Walensky, given that most spread is still among the unvaccinated, about vaccinated people who feel: “Why the hell do I have to pay the price for this?”
Walensky responded that vaccinated people should be aware that in areas with high transmission with no one wearing masks, for every 20 vaccinated people, “one or two” could get infected anyway.
While that infection is likely to be mild, she said people should be aware they could spread the virus to others.
“They may only get mild disease but we wanted them to know that they could bring that mild disease home, they could bring it to others,” she said.
The CDC, though, only makes recommendations, and it is up to state and local officials to impose mask requirements. Many of the areas of the country with the worst outbreaks and worst vaccination rates are also the areas most resistant to wearing masks, and are unlikely to follow the new guidance.
Washington, D.C., with eight new cases per day per 100,000 people, is reimposing an indoor mask mandate.
But Springfield, Mo., with 77 new cases per day per 100,000 people, is not. Springfield Mayor Ken McClure claimed that a mask mandate would only discourage people from getting vaccinated.
“To me mandated masking had its role and its place, and it was to buy us enough time to get vaccinations available to the population,” said McClure. “We are there. The solution’s here. People need to step up and take it.”
Regardless of their take on the masking guidance, all public health experts stress that the most important thing is to get more people vaccinated.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine this month using data from the United Kingdom found that the Pfizer vaccine is 88 percent effective against the delta variant. It is likely even higher against severe illness.
Even the slideshow from the CDC published by The Washington Post, which provoked some alarm for saying that the delta variant is as transmissible as chicken pox, also showed further data that the vaccines are working. The slideshow said the vaccines caused an eight-fold reduction in the risk of infection and a 25-fold reduction in the risk of hospitalization or death.
Many experts are calling for businesses and other organizations to mandate vaccines, rather than putting an emphasis on mandating masks. President Biden also took a step on that front Thursday, announcing federal workers would need to get vaccinated or get tested regularly.
“If you ask me which one would have more of an effect I would tell you vaccine mandates would, absolutely,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“Masks aren’t cures,” she added, saying they are only a temporary solution. “The only strategy is getting vaccine coverage up.”