The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance Tuesday and once again recommended that fully vaccinated Americans wear masks indoors in some cases, citing the highly contagious delta variant.
The CDC recommended that people who are vaccinated should wear masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where COVID-19 is surging, notably in areas classified as having "substantial" and "high" transmission of the coronavirus, as noted by county level on the CDC website.
"This weighs heavily on me. I know at 18 months through this pandemic, not only are people tired, they're frustrated," CDC Director Walensky said Tuesday when announcing the change. "This was not a decision that was taken lightly."
Health officials are sounding the alarm nationwide amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in areas with low vaccination rates and reports of rising cases among vaccinated people due to the delta strain.
"In recent days, I have seen new scientific data from recent outbreak investigations showing that the delta variant behaves uniquely differently from past strains of the virus," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a briefing Tuesday.
"In those are rare cases that we have breakthrough infections, we felt it important for people to understand that they have the potential to transmit virus to others," she added.
Walensky also reaffirmed that the majority of transmission, hospitalization and deaths were all still occurring among unvaccinated people, saying that the U.S. is still largely "in a pandemic of the unvaccinated."
However, she also cited new data that shows the amout of virus in vaccinated people who test positive for COVID-19 is "pretty similar to the amount of virus in unvaccinated people."
"The vaccines continue to do an exceptional job in protecting the individual who's vaccinated from severe illness, hospitalization and death," Walensky noted.
President Joe Biden issued a statement following the announcement, calling it "another step" in the "journey" to beat the virus.
"When I ran for president, I promised to be straight with you about COVID—good news or bad. And I promised to follow the science. That strategy has worked," he said.
The updated guidance reversed the decision that the CDC made in May to loosen mask restrictions for fully vaccinated Americans, citing falling cases, deaths and hospitalizations, and a rise in inoculations nationwide.
The CDC also recommended Tuesday that everyone in K-12 schools wear face masks, regardless of whether or not they are vaccinated, with many districts returning to class next week.
"[In] a real effort to try and make sure that our kids can safely get to back to full, in-person learning in the fall, we're recommending that everybody wear masks right now," Walensky explained.
At a press briefing on Tuesday, ahead of the CDC press conference, White House press secretary Jen Psaki put the United States' situation in stark terms: "We are at war, we continue to be at war with a virus, an evolving pandemic."
"Our responsibility here is to always lead with the science and always lead with the advice of health and medical experts, and we're going to continue to provide information to all of you about how to protect yourself and save your lives," she continued. "We're not saying that wearing a mask is convenient, or people feel like it, but we are telling you that that is the way to protect yourself protect your loved ones and that's why the CDC is issuing this guidance."
When asked if President Joe Biden should not have said that Americans were mostly free from the virus on July 4, Psaki pushed back, saying that the president "made clear that it was not over, that those who were unvaccinated were still at risk."
"The role of the federal government and our public health officials is to continue to look at evolving data, evolving threats of a historic virus, provide that public health guidance to the American people, to protect more people and save more lives," Psaki said.
A growing number of cities and towns have recently restored indoor masking rules, including Los Angeles, St. Louis, Savannah, Ga., and Provincetown, Mass.
"We're seeing that in LA. We're seeing that in Chicago. We're seeing that in New Orleans," Fauci said. "The officials there, many of them are saying even if you are vaccinated, it's prudent to wear a mask indoors."