Just as it seemed the United States had finally turned a corner in its battle against COVID-19, the highly contagious delta variant began to spread in states with low vaccination rates, forcing the Biden administration to overhaul its hard-fought pandemic response plan.

What You Need To Know

  • Prompted by a surge in new COVID-19 cases, the CDC on Tuesday issued new guidelines, including updated recommendations for mask use indoors and among school-aged children

  • The new guidelines come amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, fueled largely by the highly-transmissible delta variant, which makes up roughly 80 percent of new cases in the U.S.

  • On Wednesday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and HHS Assistant Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine spoke to Spectrum News about the updated guidance, the threat of the delta variant, and how the administration plans to communicate the new recommendations to teachers and students just weeks before they return to the classroom

But now, with cases surging and many pockets of the country still unvaccinated, U.S. health officials are re-issuing former restrictions and tacking on new ones – and the ever-changing series of recommendations has left many Americans confused.

On Tuesday, the CDC reversed course on mask guidance, recommending indoor mask use for all Americans in high-transmission areas, regardless of vaccination status. Health officials cited new data showing that fully-vaccinated individuals can contract the more insidious delta strain of COVID-19 and are capable of spreading it to others.

Walensky says the new guidance is based on research showing that even vaccinated people can transmit the Delta variant if they become infected.

The transmission among vaccinated people is “new” with the delta variant, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told Spectrum News in an interview Wednesday: “We did not see that with [previous variants]. And so that is the reason for the change in guidance right now.”

Still, the possibility of a fully-vaccinated individual contracting COVID-19 – what's known as a “breakthrough” case – is “rare,” Walensky noted.

“Those are rare cases," Dr. Walensky said. "But if you become infected, you can transmit it to somebody else.”

"That is new for delta," she added. "We did not see that with a wild type variant. or with alpha. And so that is the reason for the change in guidance right now."

The new guidance has some Americans confused, after the CDC said two months ago that people who are vaccinated no longer needed to wear masks. Walensky acknowledged Wednesday that the backward slide in progress has been “frustrating.”  

“This is hard, nobody wants to really think about putting masks back on,” she told Spectrum News.

“What I would say is that if we unify as a country, if people are getting vaccinated, putting their mask back on in those areas of high transmission, [then] it is possible to turn this around in just a matter of weeks. And that's really what I'm hoping we can do.”

The CDC also emphasized in its guidance Tuesday that all COVID-19 vaccines greatly reduce the chance of severe illness and death, and having vaccinated people wear masks could prevent the virus from spreading to young children who are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

To that end, the CDC also recommended for the first time that all K-12 students wear masks at school, along with fully-vaccinated teachers and staff.

This guidance, issued just weeks before students are slated to return to the classroom, adds yet another layer of confusion, both for administrators – who must quickly bring teachers up to speed – as well as parents, who are trying to prepare their children for a return to full-time, in-person learning.

Asked how this message can be effectively communicated to states and localities just weeks before the school year begins, Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine told Spectrum News that HHS and the CDC “will be having direct conversations with educators, nationally and statewide."

And though the change in guidance leaves administrators with little time to brief their staff or concerned parents, Dr. Levine maintained that the recommnedations will be beneficial for children, and is "consistent with [guidance from] the American Academy of Pediatrics.”

Dr. Levine, a pediatrician by training and longtime fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the American Academy of Pediatrics “really has their finger on the pulse of what young students and children and families need. And the CDC guidance is consistent with [that advice].”

“Because of the delta variant now – because that's the most common type of COVID-19 that we're seeing in the United States, by far ... it is necessary for everyone in schools to be wearing masks to prevent the transmission,” Levine said. “And it will be very important to prepare both schools and families and students and teachers for the upcoming school year.”

On Thursday, President Biden is expected to announce the requirement that all federal workers be vaccinated for COVID-19 or else be tested regularly for the virus.

“The pandemic we have now is the pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Biden said this week, calling the guidance "another step on our journey to defeating this virus."

On Wednesday, Walensky acknowledged the frustrations of the CDC's continually-changing recommendations, but stressed they are consistent with the latest science – and ultimately said that not taking thse precautions would be far too great a risk.

“We have learned with this delta variant that is going to be an opportunist," she said. "It will find us where we are weakest, where we haven't been vaccinated and it will continue to find our weakest points and it will continue to mutate if we have areas of increased transmission.”