US federal health agency performs U-turn on indoor mask-wearing

Republicans furious as CDU recommends masks in certain settings due to Delta surge

Americans are adjusting to new Covid-19 guidance, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that vaccinated people should wear masks in certain indoor settings.

The U-turn by the federal agency – which just two months ago announced that vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks indoors – comes as the more infectious Delta variant is pushing up Covid infection numbers in the United States, particularly in areas of the country where vaccination rates are low.

Some 49.2 per cent of all Americans, and 69 per cent of adults, are fully vaccinated. But there are wide disparities in the rate of vaccination across the country. A handful of states – many of them rural states in the south – account for the biggest uptick in cases.

The seven-day moving average of cases in the US is now 61,306 – 65 per cent higher than the previous week.


Florida alone accounted for about a quarter of new cases in the last week, and has seen its positivity rate jump to 51 per cent from 3.3 per cent last month.

The decision to change the mask-wearing guidance provoked a furious reaction from some Republicans. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted: “Make no mistake – the threat of bringing masks back is not a decision based on science, but a decision conjured up by liberal government officials who want to continue to live in a perpetual pandemic state.”

At the White House and in the US House of Representatives people wore masks for the first time since May, as the new guidance took effect.

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, explained the rationale behind the decision.

“We’re not changing the science. The virus changed, and the science evolved with the changing virus.”

In particular, the CDC noted that, unlike previous variants, there were signs that fully vaccinated people infected with the Delta variant can spread the virus.

"Unlike the Alpha variant that we had back in May, where we didn't believe that if you were vaccinated you could transmit further, this is different now with a Delta variant," CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky said.

Testing mandate

As the debate about mask-wearing, which divided the country last year, threatened to re-emerge, the White House confirmed that the introduction of a vaccination or testing mandate for federal workers is under “strong consideration”.

Under the proposals, government employees would have to be fully vaccinated or undergo frequent testing as part of the conditions of their employment.

The department of veteran affairs became the first agency this week to introduce a vaccination requirement for frontline healthcare workers.

Several states and cities have moved ahead of the federal guidance, and reintroduced Covid-related rules. New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Wednesday that all state employees would be required to show proof of vaccination or be subject to regular testing. State-run hospitals will require all patient-facing employees to be vaccinated, without the option of being testing instead.

The CDC has also recommended that children wear masks when they return to school next month. Any person who is present in a school, including staff, students and visitors, should wear masks regardless of vaccination status, the agency said.

However, several states such as Texas have already said they will not implement a mask mandate for schools. Republican governor Greg Abbott issued an order in mid-May prohibiting all schools and most government entities from requiring face coverings.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent