AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Amid a surge in cases fueled by the delta variant, the CDC has changed its mask recommendations. The agency now advises that fully vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in areas where the coronavirus is circulating widely. The agency has also changed course on masking in schools, recommending universal masking regardless of vaccination status. Joining us now with more details is NPR's Allison Aubrey.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa. Good to be here.
CHANG: So tell us more about this change in guidance.
AUBREY: Sure. For weeks, there's been a growing chorus of public health officials saying it makes sense for vaccinated people to mask up in crowded indoor spaces. This is because while the vaccines are very effective, Ailsa, they're not 100%.
AUBREY: And today, CDC director Rochelle Walensky pointed to new data that suggests the delta variant behaves differently. Not only is it more contagious, but people who get breakthrough infections could be contagious.
ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Some vaccinated people infected with the delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others. This new science is worrisome and, unfortunately, warrants an update to our recommendations.
AUBREY: And this is why the CDC now says if you live in an area with substantial or high spread of the virus, you should mask up indoors even if you're fully vaccinated.
CHANG: Wait. Wait. So what parts of the country have substantial or high spread?
AUBREY: You know, it's really a huge swath of the country, with the exception of the Northeast and parts of the upper Midwest. As I look at the map, throughout the South and the lower Midwest, it looks like almost all of the counties are in orange or red. The same is true for much of the West Coast. So, you know, you can check out a CDC map online. It breaks it down to the county level.
CHANG: OK. And tell us more about this change in guidance from masking in schools now.
AUBREY: Sure. Yeah. The CDC now recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, kindergarten through 12th grade, regardless of vaccination status. And this is a change from earlier this month when the agency said that fully vaccinated students and teachers didn't need to wear masks. Dr. Walensky says this is due to rising case counts and low vaccination rates.
WALENSKY: With only 30% of our kids between 12 and 17 fully vaccinated now, in a real effort to try and make sure that our kids can safely get back to full in-person learning, we're recommending that everybody wear masks right now.
CHANG: I mean, Allison, all of this is kind of a big swerve in policy - right? - because back in May, the CDC had said that vaccinated people could take off their masks in most settings, right?
AUBREY: Yeah, that's absolutely right. But, you know, a lot has changed. In May, new cases were dropping significantly. And back in May, about 2 million vaccine shots were being administered every day, so there was this great sense of optimism.
AUBREY: But two months later, about 30% of adults remain unvaccinated. New cases are surging. Nonetheless, a lot of experts have said the CDC has been too slow to respond. Here's Dr. Zeke Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania.
ZEKE EMANUEL: The CDC's position on masks has been behind the eight ball almost every step of the way.
AUBREY: So today's announcement is seen by some as the agency sort of playing catch-up after weeks of experts saying, hey, look, cases are rising. Many people remain unvaccinated. It makes sense to mask up.
CHANG: That is NPR's Allison Aubrey.
Thank you, Allison.
AUBREY: Thank you, Ailsa.
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