Vaccinated people in hotspots to resume wearing masks indoors: US health authority

Photo: EPA People wearing masks walk through Times Square, New York, 27 July 2021.

People vaccinated against Covid-19 in high-risk parts of the United States should resume wearing masks indoors, the top health authority said Tuesday, a major reversal in guidance that underscored the country's struggle to suppress the Delta variant, AFP reported. President Joe Biden said the announcement showed that America needs to "do better" on vaccinations, adding that a vaccine mandate for the country's more than two million federal workers was now "under consideration."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky cited new data that shows rare breakthrough cases involving Delta have an increased risk of onward transmission. "In areas with substantial and high transmission, CDC recommends fully vaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings," she said.

Walensky stressed that so-called "breakthrough" cases among people who are vaccinated remain rare -- shots reduce the risk of symptomatic disease seven-fold, and hospitalisations and deaths by a factor of twenty. However, new CDC research showed that when a vaccinated person does become infected, their viral load is similar to an unvaccinated person. "That leads us to believe that the breakthrough infections, rare as they are, have the potential to forward transmit at the same capacity of an unvaccinated person," she said.

According to the latest CDC data, 63% of the country's more than 3,200 counties are experiencing substantial or high transmission.

Biden said he would lay out new steps on Thursday to overcome the lag in vaccinations after the country's strong start to its programme. In a separate address to the US intelligence community, when asked about a possible vaccine mandate for US federal workers, Biden replied: "That's under consideration right now." On Monday, the Veterans Affairs department said it would require its frontline health workers, some 115,000 people, to get the shot, becoming the first federal agency to institute the requirement.

To stem the spread of the Delta variant, the CDC will recommend schools adopt universal masking, including teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, when they reopen in fall, she added.

Walenksy stressed she saw masks as a "temporary" measure, adding: "What we really need to do to drive down these transmissions in areas of high transmission is to get more and more people vaccinated."

Forty-nine percent of the US population is fully vaccinated, but the vaccination rate is heavily skewed towards politically liberal parts of the country.

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