Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the CDC is leaving it up to local officials to set guidelines for mask-wearing as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus surges in areas with low vaccination rates.
Walensky said Wednesday on NBC’s “Today” show that “we’ve always said that local policymakers need to make policies for their local environment,” but added CDC guidelines broadly indicate those who are vaccinated don’t need to wear masks.
“Those masking policies are not to protect the vaccinated, they’re to protect the unvaccinated,” she says. “If you are vaccinated, you are safe from the variants that are circulating here in the United States."
Walensky said there are areas of low vaccination in the country where cases are rising, and in that situation, the CDC is suggesting that policies be made at the local level.
Her comments come a day after health officials in Los Angeles County recommended people wear masks indoors in public places regardless of their vaccination status, citing the pace of the spread of the delta variant, which was first identified in India.
The new, voluntary mask guidance is needed until health officials can "better understand how and to who the delta variant is spreading," the county's department of public health said.
Less than 60% of Los Angeles County residents age 16 and over are fully vaccinated, with 67% having received at least one dose. Of the more than 400,000 coronavirus cases reported in the county since December, nearly all occurred among the unvaccinated. The same is true for COVID-related deaths.
Separately, the World Health Organization has reiterated its longstanding recommendation that everyone wear masks, and is also urging vaccinated people to wear masks as cases of the delta variant spike worldwide.
At a press briefing on Friday, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the lack of vaccines in poor countries was exacerbating the delta variant’s transmission.
Walensky said the context in which the WHO is making recommendations is very different than here in the United States” since less than 15% of the world is vaccinated. She noted that 66% of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Delta, now in at least 92 countries, including the United States, is expected to become the dominant variant of the disease worldwide, according to the WHO. In the U.S., the prevalence of the strain is doubling about every two weeks.
In Mississippi, where delta is the dominant variant and only 31% of the state's eligible population is vaccinated, health officials are also recommending that residents continue to wear masks indoors even if they are fully vaccinated, CNBC reports. About 96% of new COVID-19 cases in the state are among unvaccinated people, health officials added.
The highly contagious variant is also expected to be the dominate strain in Illinois by the fall, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Monday. Pritzker also encouraged residents to continue to "use your mask accordingly."
"I would say from my own perspective if you're going into a heavily crowded area, you don't know if somebody is not vaccinated and so you should just bring your mask with you and keep safe," he said.