WASHINGTON — Federal health officials on Tuesday urged Americans in areas of the country with the highest surges in COVID-19 infections to once again wear masks when they are in public, indoor settings — even if they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The updated recommendations marked a sharp shift from the agency’s guidance in May that Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not need to wear a mask in most situations, indoors and outdoors.
The updates also included changes for schools, with federal health officials now urging everyone in K-12 schools to wear a mask indoors. That includes teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status and the level of community transmission.
The update in CDC guidance was prompted by new data indicating that although breakthrough infections among the vaccinated are rare, those individuals still may be contagious and able to spread the disease to others, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Wearing a mask indoors in areas with “substantial” or “high” transmission of the virus could help to reduce further outbreaks of the highly contagious delta variant, she said.
Some 39 states have infection rates that have reached “substantial” or “high” levels of transmission, according to a data tracker on the CDC website.
The agency also tracks infection rates on the county level, and 63 percent of U.S. counties are in those two categories of concern.
“This was not a decision that was taken lightly,” Walensky said. She added that other public health and medical experts agreed with the CDC that the new information on the potential for vaccinated people to have contagious infections required the agency to take action.
As of midday on Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Health confirmed 986 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to more than 1.2 million since the start of the pandemic.
The agency also confirmed four new deaths, bringing the total number of fatalities since the start of the pandemic to 27,831. Statewide, 439 people were hospitalized, with 97 people in intensive care units, the agency said in a statement. The state’ positivity rate for the week of July 16 through July 22 was 2.6 percent, the Health Department said.