The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will recommend Tuesday that Americans wear masks indoors again, particularly in crowded indoor settings, according to three people with direct knowledge of the situation.
The new indoor mask recommendations will apply to people who live in areas where the CDC has classified Covid-19 transmission as “high” or “substantial,” a health official said — a category that includes much of the South as well as western states like Arizona and Wyoming.
The announcement, which applies to vaccinated as well as unvaccinated people, will mark a sharp change in policy for the nation’s leading health agency. In May, the CDC said vaccinated Americans no longer needed to wear masks outdoors or indoors in most circumstances.
Tuesday’s guidelines underscore the extent to which the Biden administration is increasingly worried about the highly transmissible Delta variant infecting the unvaccinated population across the country. It also points to a frustrating new reality for the White House — that the country needs to revert back to wearing masks at a time when the U.S. was supposed to be returning to normal life.
The mask recommendations come at a time when portions of the South and Midwest are experiencing sharp upticks in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations. In Louisiana, Alabama and Missouri, ICUs are overcrowded with patients, many of them between the ages of 30 and 60. More than 95 percent of the patients hospitalized nationwide are unvaccinated, according to state public health officials and the CDC.
“I’m glad the CDC headed the overwhelming consensus of public health officials across the country,” said Leana Wen, a doctor at Georgetown University. “I wish that they went further and finally called for a system of proof for vaccination otherwise the vaccinated are being punished for the actions of the unvaccinated.”
The Biden administration has for months rolled out a national vaccine campaign to convince Americans to sign up for the shot. But vaccination rates plateaued earlier this summer, and the administration has had difficulty messaging to Americans in more conservative, rural parts of the country.
Internal deliberations about encouraging Americans to yet again wear masks indoors came to a head Sunday when senior officials from the White House and the CDC met to discuss new data that supported new guidelines, a person with knowledge of that meeting said.
The administration’s reversal comes after officials reviewed new data on transmissibility of the Delta variant showing fully vaccinated people could carry higher levels of Covid-19 than previously thought — and were potentially able to infect others.
Fully vaccinated people are likely responsible for only a very small amount of virus transmission, one health official said. But the data was enough to convince the CDC to ratchet up its masking guidance once again.
The agency will advise people to wear KN95 masks when indoors if possible, two other individuals with knowledge of the recommendations said. KN95 masks, which are made in China, can offer similar protection to the N95 masks worn by health care providers.
The CDC will also urge local officials to encourage universal masking indoors for all teachers, staff, students and school visitors no matter their vaccination status, according to a senior administration official.