The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is out yet again with new guidelines on masks. After declaring in May that fully vaccinated people need not wear masks outdoors and in most indoor settings, the American health watchdog has now said that people in parts of the country seeing a surge in infections should go back to putting on the face cover. Experts and the public have noticed this announcement as yet another flip-flop on this protective wear that has been elevated to the status of being quite the necessary item of clothing in Covid times. Here’s why CDC reversed its earlier guidance and how advisories on masks took on a life of their own during the pandemic.
What Has The CDC Said?
With vaccinations progressing apace and new infections trending downwards, the CDC had progressively eased masking regulations for vaccinated people in the US.
After saying in April that fully vaccinated people needn’t wear masks unless they were in a big crowd of strangers, it said in May that fully vaccinated people could stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings although it called for such people to continue wearing masks in crowded indoor settings, like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters.
It is reported to have subsequently provided that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks at summer camps or at schools.
However, in a July 27 update to its Covid-19 advisory, it said that fully vaccinated people should wear a mask indoors in public if they are in an area of “substantial or high transmission". It stressed that “wearing a mask is most important" for people with weakened immune system or those that are at increased risk for severe disease due to age or an underlying medical condition. It also recommended masking for those who have people in their households who may have a weakened immune system or are unvaccinated.
In fact, it said that people who may fit a heightened-risk profile “might choose to wear a mask regardless of the level of transmission" in their area.
What Has Driven The Change In Stance?
The CDC clarified upfront that it was the Delta variant that had prompted it to change its stance on masking so that people could “maximise protection… and prevent possibly spreading it to others".
While health authorities and experts note that most new cases in the US are being reported among those who are yet to be vaccinated, the scope of the emergence of ‘breakthrough’ cases — that is, infections among those who have been vaccinated — cannot be ruled out. And, the Delta variant, which was identified first in India in 2020, may have just made matters more complicated.
According to CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky, while earlier strains of the novel coronavirus caused milder infections among the vaccinated than in those who had not received a shot, the level of virus in infected vaccinated people is “indistinguishable" from the level of virus in unvaccinated people infected with the Delta variant.
Reports said that the CDC mask update has been issued on the basis of data — yet unreleased — that has emerged over the last couple of days from 100 samples. “It is concerning enough that we feel like we have to act," Walensky said, adding that vaccinated people “have the potential to spread that virus to others". Which would mean that the first lesson of masks — “my mask protects you and your mask protects me" — has to be embraced again.
How Has The Guidance On Masks Evolved?
The Covid-19 pandemic is a crisis of several moving parts — just look at the rise of new variants and their impact on vaccine antibodies for one — but few elements related to it have seen as many revisions as, arguably, the guidance on wearing masks. If you jog your memory to the early days of the pandemic, you may recall how the CDC and the World Health Organisation had initially spoken against wearing masks, if only to ensure there was enough of these available for frontline workers who needed it the most.
But before long, it was overwhelmingly established that masking did protect against the spread of Covid-19 and, now, wearing a mask is one of the three pillars of Covid appropriate behaviour across the world along with social distancing and frequent hand-washing.
But that is not to say that fatigue hasn’t set in vis-a-vis the constant need to wear masks and, the countries that managed to vaccinate sizeable sections of their populations have chosen to allow some relaxations.
Where Have Authorities Okayed Going Off Masks?
Earlier this month, England entered the final phase of the easing of its Covid-19 restrictions. Along with the reopening of public places, office and nightclubs, people were also allowed to go off masks. As the country geared up for a return to normalcy, UK-based media outlets noted that it was not alone in going easy on masks. Countries like Sweden, Israel, New Zealand, etc. were reported to have relaxed masking requirements. But countries were also found to be going back to stricter curbs amid reported rise in cases related to the Delta variant.
Professor Susan Michie, a member of the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), was quoted as saying that mask-wearing in indoor spaces should continue “until we can be more confident that the vaccination programme will provide sufficient population immunity to suppress the pandemic". Indeed, many experts have made a similar point, saying that while the pandemic continues, it is not advisable to completely go off masks, even if a person is fully vaccinated.